Deciphering the Code: What Chris Paul was Really Saying

“My bad, I didn’t hear the code.”

That’s what my husband said during our discussion about NBA point guard Chris Paul’s ill-advised comment about rookie female referee Lauren Holtkamp. Paul made the following comments after the Clippers’ blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in which Holtkamp gave Paul a technical foul:

“The tech that I get right there was ridiculous. I don’t care what nobody says, I don’t care what she says; that’s terrible. There’s no way that can be a tech. We try to get the ball out fast every time down the court, and when we did that, she said, ‘Uh-uh.’ I said, ‘Why, uh-uh?’ And she gave me a tech.

“That’s ridiculous. If that’s the case, this might not be for her.”

Everything up to that last line is pretty understandable. I mean, the interview was right after a bad loss, and his team is struggling. But his comments cross the line from general referee reproach to a specific gender assessment with the words “this might not be for her.”

My husband, like many men on talk radio the morning after, thought Paul’s statements were no big deal. Some of his defenders said it was a comment that he would have made about any rookie ref, regardless of gender, but that struck me as false. It’s not unusual (but it is fineable) for a player to criticize a call by a referee. However, Paul directly addressed Holtkamp’s qualifications for the job, a distinction that I’m not sure he would have made about a male rookie referee, and one that was uncalled for given that Holtkamp has paid her dues and, having refereed in the D-league, both she and the NBA would know by now if the job was indeed “for her.” At the very least, Paul’s tone was patronizing.

Still, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that had me so unsettled about “this might not be for her” until I heard sports anchor Liz Habib on ESPN 710 LA. Habib voiced it perfectly by clarifying that Paul’s statement was really one that so many women have had to hear in their occupations: “You’re too sensitive.”

Now people have learned a little more nuance in this PC world. Sports media couldn’t say that Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman acted like the N-word in his viral interview with Erin Andrews last year, so they used the word “thug” to describe him instead. He/we knew what they meant. And here, rather than saying “Stick to the WNBA, sweetie,” Chris Paul chose the words “this might not be for her”. His wording directly questions her ability to handle being with the big boys. Basically, Paul went for the easy shot; the low-hanging fruit.

After all, the “too sensitive” card certainly isn’t new. Women in management positions have heard it, and I as a person of color have had it thrown at me when I questioned a remark I found offensive. It can at times be an effective strategy to put someone who dares to speak up back in their place, or to simply shift the topic from the incident being the problem to the person who brings it up being the problem. Or, in this case, to patronize a referee who dared to call a technical foul on an All-Star point guard like Chris Paul.

I do not think Chris Paul dislikes woman, and I’m not even sure that his comment was meant to be gender specific, but the optics aren’t good. I absolutely believe we should be able to criticize a referee for a decision regardless of gender, but I also feel strongly that such assessment can, and should, be more sophisticated and creative than “you’re too sensitive.” We’re on to you, guys. Step your game up.


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