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February 15, 2003

A sign of progress

From: Democrat and Chronicle, NY - 15 Feb 2003

NTID's Wetzel is first deaf female referee in NCAA Div. I basketball

By Scott Pitoniak
Democrat and Chronicle

(February 15, 2003) — The silver whistle bearing the Women’s National Basketball Association logo dangles from her rear-view mirror. A gift from a WNBA referee, it serves as a compass for Marsha Wetzel’s dreams.

’’As I drive along, my goal is always right there in front of me,’’ says Wetzel, the first deaf referee in Division I women’s college basketball history. ‘’The WNBA is where I would like to be some day.’’

Given what she has overcome and achieved so far, it would be folly to bet against her.

It matters not that Wetzel can’t hear the whistle she blows or the scoreboard buzzer. Calling upon her ‘’radar eyes’’ and a keen knowledge of the game forged during her four years as a point guard for primarily deaf Gallaudet University, Wetzel officiates with a sense of authority that has drawn rave reviews from her supervisors in the Atlantic 10 Conference and the Patriot League.

’’She is quite a woman,’’ Marie Koch, the A-10’s coordinator of officials, told USA Today. ’’She earned her way onto the A-10 second-tier staff simply because of her refereeing ability. She worked hard at our camp. She demonstrated extreme court awareness, a good working knowledge of the game. She’s one of the most receptive officials I’ve ever worked with. She’s a sponge. She can’t learn enough.’’

An instructor at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Wetzel developed a love for hoops while growing up in the Hartford, Conn., suburb of Newington in the late 1960s, early ‘70s. Her father played basketball in the Deaflympics, and Wetzel followed in his sneaker steps, participating twice in the Olympic-style competition. She started four years at Gallaudet, and coached high school girls basketball at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., after graduating in 1986.

Although she guided her team to the championship game that winter, Wetzel didn’t develop a passion for coaching. But she still yearned to be involved in the game, and officiating gave her the opportunity to remain on the court, in the middle of the action.

Wetzel’s 12-year odyssey from refereeing youth leagues to major college basketball has been filled with numerous obstacles. It has not been easy traversing the trail blazed by Guy Kirk, a deaf referee who has been working men’s games in the Southern Conference for 17 years.

Perhaps her biggest challenge is the language barrier. For the 40-year-old to communicate with her colleagues, coaches and players before, during and after games, Wetzel must provide interpreters, who use American Sign Language. It’s an expensive proposition because interpreters can cost up to $45 per hour. Many schools no longer pick up the expense, meaning that Wetzel incurs financial hardships her peers don’t face.

“When I don’t have an interpreter, I feel like a second-class citizen,” she says. “I can communicate fine without one for much of the game, but there are times when I need to be able to discuss things with my partners or with a coach or a player. I’ve tried to read lips, but everybody has different lip movements so it’s difficult.”

As frustrating as that hurdle is, Wetzel isn’t about to allow it to stop her from pursuing her dream. She’s built a network of interpreters and is setting up a fund to help defray the expenses for her and the roughly 32 other deaf basketball officials currently working either high school or college games. (You can contribute by e-mailing Wetzel at

“I would like to see us get to a point where deaf officials don’t face the struggles I and others have faced, as far as interpreters are concerned,” says Wetzel, who teaches a class in officiating at Rochester Institute of Technology to students who are deaf. “We want to remove barriers so that we are on an equal footing with hearing refs.”

Despite the obstacles, Wetzel loves what she does.

“You are out there in the flow of the game with all these great athletes,” she says. “My reward is working a good game and being anonymous.”

Because hand signals are such a huge part of the game, fans, players and coaches often are unaware that Wetzel can’t hear. She blends into the flow.

“You don’t notice that she’s deaf,” Bucknell coach Kathy Fedorjaka told Sports Illustrated, “until you start yelling at her and realize it’s not going to do a thing.”

Wetzel jokes that her deafness comes in handy when one of her calls draws the ire of a coach or player.

“I can just turn away,” she says, laughing.

Although she can’t hear the boos and catcalls, she’s very good at reading facial expressions and body language.

“Believe me I know when somebody is upset with me,” she says. “There was one game when a coach came up to me at halftime and through my interpreter really let me have it. I let her have her say. Sometimes you have to do that in order to diffuse a situation. It’s part of being an official.”

Wetzel says her fellow officials have been very good at protecting her back.

“If a player or coach says something totally inappropriate, she can expect to get (a technical foul),” Wetzel says. “I appreciate the support.”

Wetzel, who also works some Section V girls games and local Division III contests, aspires for a busier Division I schedule. The next logical step for her would be to work conference playoff games, then take a shot at the NCAA women’s tournament and the Final Four.

Her long-term goal remains the WNBA. Wetzel’s reminded of that destination each time she slides into the driver’s seat of her car and sees that whistle, dangling like a carrot from her rear-view mirror.

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© 2003 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.