Felicia Grinter was a point guard on the Volunteer State Community College women’s basketball team when she enrolled in a basketball officiating class because she needed a credit in health and physical education.
Little did Grinter know that class would launch a career that has seen her become one of the top women’s basketball referees. Grinter’s standing among game officials was confirmed when she was selected to officiate in the 2012 London Olympics, which will be held in London July 27-Aug. 12. She is the only American referee chosen to work the Summer Games.
“It is definitely the highest point of my career,’’ Grinter says. “It’s been a blessing. All I could do was holler when I found out and give blessings to the Lord above for path he has led me on.’’
Grinter started down the officiating path on the recommendation of Charles Watkins, a long-time official who was among the first black referees to work a full schedule in the SEC. Watkins spoke to Grinter’s officiating class at Volunteer State. During his presentation, he had class members come on the floor and go through the mechanics of officiating. He says he noticed that Grinter had a natural knack for officiating, and he recommended that she pursue becoming a referee. He took Grinter under his wing, and has been her mentor ever since.
“I saw something in her that was uniquely different,’’ says Watkins, who retired from college officiating 27 years and now officiates junior varsity and middle school games in Nashville. “The fact that she was so coachable made it a joy working with her. I never had to tell her to do anything more than once.’’
Watkins helped Grinter get work officiating middle schools, but she acknowledges that she was full of trepidation as she headed down the officiating path.
“I said it wasn’t for me,’’ she says. “I didn’t like people hollering at me. I’m a laid back, quiet person.’’
However, because she was an athlete and couldn’t hold a full-time job, and since she needed money, she decided she would try it one more year.
Ultimately, she gave up her playing career, took a job at the local Ford Motor Co. plant inspecting windshields and concentrated on officiating.
Following her third year officiating, she attended OVC referees camp and her career took off from that point.
“If anyone had asked me 10-15 years ago if I would be officiating now, I would have said no way,’’ Grinter says.
Grinter balanced officiating and working at Ford for years before taking a leave of absence to see how officiating full-time would work. She never went back.
“I have no regrets,’’ she says.” It has been a blessing for me and allowed me to see the world. If it weren’t for officiating, I’d be sitting behind a desk in a factory confined.’’
In addition to the MEAC, Grinter currently works in the ACC, ASun, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, Colonial, C-USA, Horizon, Mid-American, Missouri Valley, OVC, SEC, Sun Belt and SWAC.
“Once she got the exposure it was easy (for her to get work),’’ Watkins says. “They saw the potential that I saw.’’
Grinter has worked the Final Four twice, including in 2011, and numerous conference tournaments. She worked in the NBA Development League for four seasons, and has called games in the WNBA since 2004. In addition, Grinter has been a FIBA/USA Basketball official since 2003.
She says working MEAC and SWAC games is special for her and has made her a better official.
“I enjoy them because it gives me the opportunity to referee HBCUs,’’ she says. “You can see the kids who come out of those universities, how well they play and how athletic they are. That helped me to be able to officiate more athletic players. They like to a fast-paced game.’’
Grinter says that even though the style of play in the college game changes from conference to conference, her officiating standard doesn’t. That has vaulted her to the top.
“A game is a game is a game to me,’’ she says. “Some conferences are more physical than others, but I don’t make don’t make any changes. What teams give me that’s what I officiate whether it’s the top team or the bottom team.’’
She applies the same rule of thumb when she works international and professional games even though the styles are vastly different.
“The difference in collegiate officiating and professional officiating is pro players are taller, bigger, stronger and the game is quicker,’’ she says. “Those players are being paid to do a job. They’re going to challenge us with calls. In the international game the pace is probably the biggest difference. It’s a very fast-paced game.
They play to win on offense. Here in the States its defense. When they shoot the ball and it comes off, they’re gone.
“The challenge is different languages they speak. Some officials speak a little English a language barrier. Coaches don’t say much to the officials. They coaches coach their teams. That’s it. It’s easier (dealing with coaches) than in States – much easier. What they say, I don’t know what they saying, and they don’t know what I’m saying.’’
Even if Grinter could understand what coaches were saying in those situations, it’s unlikely that the situation would escalate because of her calm demeanor and the thick skin she has developed over the years.
“I definitely have thick skin,’’ she says. “You have to. The higher level of officiating you go into, the more you have to respond to coaches. They have a job to do like I have job to do. I let my calm demeanor prevail. That’s just my personality. I give 100 percent. Coaches have a job to do. I understand it’s heat of the moment. Someone has to be the calmer of the two.’’
Watkins, who has mentored a number of men’s and women’s officials, calls Grinter “one of his prized pupils’’ because she doesn’t have an over-sized ego and her eagerness to learn even at this stage of her career. He watches her games every opportunity he gets and critiques her performance.
“There are a lot of egotistical individuals, who are money hungry and glory,’’ he says. “The result is many are in it for the wrong reason.’’
Grinter isn’t in that number, and that enables her to acknowledge the mistakes that she might make during a game.
“For us as officials, we only have a split second to make a decision,’’ she says. “Everybody else gets to see the replay. I know I give it 100%. Every call, every whistle, I’m hoping I’m making the right call. When I miss a call I just say to myself I’m human. If coach asks, I say I missed it. I’ll do better the next time. I’m upfront. I have ownership. That comes with experience and confidence. That’s where I am in my career.’’
And that’s why Grinter is at the top of her profession.