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The Women Refereeing the Men

Toni Caldwell has been an NBL referee for 7 years and will ref at the Women's World Cup later this year.

NBL referee Toni Caldwell doesn’t get intimidated easily and has been refereeing elite men’s leagues for 7 years


The NRL has female players, administrators and CEOs but not yet a referee.

And Belinda Sleeman is well on her way to changing all that.

The 26 year old has climbed the ranks and is currently in the NRL’s elite performance squad, officiating FOGS and Holden Cup matches as well as the Auckland Nines.

“Obviously the NRL is the next step forward for me but at the moment I’m just enjoying the opportunity that I’ve got and making sure that when an opportunity does come up that I’m ready for it.”

26 year old Belinda Sleeman refs Holden Cup and FOGS matches but one day hopes to ref in the NRL

26 year old Belinda Sleeman refs Holden Cup and FOGS matches but one day hopes to ref in the NRL

Growing up in Central Queensland, where Rugby League is more a religion than a match for mere mortals, Belinda was as footy mad as the rest of them and longed to be involved in any way possible.

“We didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play, there weren’t really female competitions, so the only way for me to get involved was to coach or referee and I thought refereeing was the best way to go.”

Belinda was 18 when she started refereeing junior matches in her hometown of Rockhampton. Four years later she had the opportunity to join the Queensland Rugby League Referees Academy and packed her bags, her home and her job and set about following her passion in Brisbane.

Referees have the hardest position of any sport, even when they are right, it’s inevitable they’ll still cop some slack from the crowd, coaches and players.

But does being female in this perceived male domain see more mud slung their way?

“A lot of people ask me that question, if I get any grief from the crowd and things but I don’t think I get it any different to the male referees,”

“You’re never going to make a lot of friends in the position that we’re in and I guess we do it because we love being involved in the game”.

And refereeing isn’t a matter of just pulling on your pink shirt and grabbing a whistle every weekend, Belinda trains every day of the week and that’s not just physically.

“There’s conditioning, there’s skills, there’s gym work and there’s a lot of theory work as well,”

“We have to be as fit as the players”.

Unlike the players, there’s no chance of being subbed off and watching Belinda run and sprint up and down that field for a full 80 minutes you understand the level of fitness that’s needed.

You also need to know how to deal with confrontation and standing your ground, even when many of the players tower over the your 165cm frame.

“I think the players have been twice the size of me since juniors! I guess it’s a matter of knowing why you’re there, knowing your role and I think they have a respect and appreciation for you if you can do your job well”.

Toni Caldwell knows all about that.

Toni Caldwell was voted in an NBL players and coaches poll as the league's second best referee

Toni Caldwell was voted in an NBL players and coaches poll as the league’s second best referee

Stepping on the basketball court, she’s the shortest person on a stage of giants.

“Yeah they are quite big and I’m quite small. I probably scrape 5 foot with my heels off and some of those guys are 7foot”.

Toni is at the top of her game, refereeing for the past 7 years with the NBL.  Only recently she was voted in a players and coaches’ poll as the second best referee in the league and has been selected to travel with our national women’s team, the Opals, to referee at the World Championships in Turkey.

But the road here has been far from easy, tackling an elite male league has its challenges and even cases of mistaken identity early on.

“In my second season reffing I had a game on the Gold Coast. I went to find the referee change room and one of the security guards stopped me and said ‘Excuse me love are you looking for the cheerleaders room?’ and I was like ‘No I’m looking for the referees room’, I was quite mortified he thought I was a cheerleader and not a referee.”

Toni is a pioneer of women referees and now mentors many younger female refs who want to follow in her footsteps. But even with all her success over the past 7 years, women referees still have to fight for respect.

“I think it’s tougher not so much on the court, because the players and coaches just see you as another official, but away from the court you have to work harder to be accepted. I have to train harder, work harder”.

For that reason, Toni never stops refereeing. Once the NBL season is over, she continues refereeing in the state league in the winter and all year round, you’ll find her at the local basketball courts, refereeing just to keep her skills up and to give back to the sport.

Toni is half the size of many of the players but knows how to stand her ground

Toni is half the size of many of the players but knows how to stand her ground

“I love the game and enjoy nothing more than working with the young officials, especially all the female ones and passing on all the things I have been taught and experienced along my journey.”

A basketball player herself growing up, Toni competed in the state league before discovering the whistle. From there she knew exactly where she wanted to go.

“I was 18 and I said that I would referee the NBL one day. I was determined to get there and I was continually told I wouldn’t,”

“Referee coaches, people you just come across would say because I was female it wasn’t an achievable goal.”

Despite the glass ceiling, Toni persisted in her dream, spurred on by the achievements NBL referee Caroline Gillespie and NBA referee Violet Palmer in the USA.

“Caroline Gillespie was a referee in Adelaide who was probably one of our most successful referees, she was at the NBL for 10 years and refereed at the Sydney Olympics.”

“Violet Palmer was the first female referee in the NBA and still is today, so they’re my two role models.”

But it’s a person in a completely different sport who Toni calls on for support – AFL umpire Chelsea Roffey. Chelsea was the second woman ever appointed as an AFL goal umpire and the first to officiate a Grand Final in 2012. Toni and Chelsea went to University together and became good friends who are always only a phone call away.

“I go down to Chelsea’s games and she comes to mine. We support each other off the court as well, if we’ve had a bad game or something’s happened, I’ll message Chelsea and she’ll do the same,”

“We understand the difficulties when it comes to being an elite female referee in a men’s sport”.

The 38 year old has achieved so much in her sport but refereeing at the Olympics remains the ultimate goal.

Nothing intimidates Toni, not even the site of 10 raging 6ft basketballers steaming in to an all in brawl, but she had to learn the hard way to pick her fights.

“There was one fight in a game and for some reason I always end up in the middle of them. I grabbed Pero Cameron, he’s a New Zealand player and rather large. He brushed me off like a fly and I went flying,”

“It was then on a loop on Fox Sports as one of their top plays of the week.”

Sport needs more figures like Toni and Belinda.  They both possess a natural authority and an incredible work ethic. They’re not waiting for their silver platter, nor making excuses when a delivery doesn’t arrive. There’s a steely drive to break new ground in a tough sporting arena and that beats so hard they leave others no choice but to take notice.

To see the Video Story on Toni and Belinda head to the Video Gallery in Galleries





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