Spring 2023 Issue

Holding Court

Former W&M athlete Tiara “T” Cruse ’06 plays a role in “record-breaking growth” of women’s basketball as an NCAA and WNBA referee

By Tina Eshleman

Spring 2023 Issue

This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament made history and Tiara “T” Cruse ’06 was part of it as one of 11 game officials — all women, for the first time — chosen to work the Final Four in Dallas. • A former William & Mary basketball player, Cruse is a frequent presence at high-visibility NCAA and WNBA games. She is also an advocate for equal treatment of women in collegiate and professional sports, and a role model for current student-athletes.

“It’s so special for our young ladies to connect with people who stood in their shoes and wore their jerseys,” says W&M women’s basketball head coach Erin Dickerson Davis. She met Cruse in September when the alumna was on campus to participate in a William & Mary Women’s Weekend panel discussion on “Women, Sports and Social Change” and later invited her to speak with the team in a virtual session on financial awareness and financial literacy.

“T Cruse is a big name in women’s basketball,” Dickerson Davis says. “To see her, to be able to engage with her, is important for our athletes.”

Televised on ABC and multiple ESPN platforms, the April 2 championship in which LSU defeated Iowa 102-85 was the most-watched NCAA women’s basketball game on record, with viewership peaking at 12.6 million and averaging 9.9 million, according to ESPN. Combined, the Tigers and Hawkeyes set a record for the most points in title game history, and LSU set a record for points by a team in the final.

Cruse was on standby for both the Iowa-South Carolina semifinal and the championship, meaning she was courtside in uniform throughout the game, ready to step in at a moment’s notice. In the broadcast of the Tigers-Hawkeyes matchup, she can be seen standing behind Iowa coach Lisa Bluder during the national anthem and chatting with fellow referee Lisa Jones on the sidelines before the game.

Despite the heightened attention on the Final Four games, Cruse says she remained focused and on task: “I was there watching as another referee from the sideline and staying tuned in to support my colleagues. But it was also fun to see the growth of the game firsthand and to see the arena sold out.”

She says it is encouraging to witness more equitable treatment of the NCAA women’s tournament in terms of media coverage and promotion. For example, it wasn’t until 2022 — the 50th anniversary of when Congress enacted Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds — that the NCAA began using “March Madness” branding for the women’s tournament as well as the men’s. The NCAA also started paying referees the same amount for both the men’s and women’s tournaments in 2022.

“The whole ecosystem is being provided resources that enable the game to be showcased and these young ladies to exhibit their talent, and people are seeing that,” Cruse says. “So you’re seeing meteoric rise in fandom and attention on the game, and social media helps, too.”

For Cruse, one of the highlights of this year’s NCAA tournament was the Ohio State-University vs. University of Connecticut game in Seattle on March 25 that aired on ABC and broke a Sweet 16 record with 2.4 million television viewers. The matchup was also notable because Ohio State’s Buckeyes ended the UConn Huskies’ streak of reaching the Final Four 14 consecutive times. Overall viewership for the Sweet 16 was up 73% over last year, according to ESPN.

“It was exciting to know that I was officiating a game that’s part of this record-breaking historical growth,” Cruse says.

Looking ahead to the WNBA season beginning May 19, she says, “I hope the synergy of the women’s college game can connect to the energy the WNBA has already captured the past few seasons and show that women can not only compete but excel as part of a global product, and advertisers and sponsors and TV networks can truly buy into it.”

‘The Perfect Fit’

Cruse’s passion for basketball developed long before she became a referee.

“As a younger kid, I wanted to do everything my older brother did,” she says. “He played football, so I played flag football. When he started to play basketball, I wanted to play basketball. I also played soccer — all the sports young kids do.”

The daughter of Navy veterans who both worked in health care, Cruse first visited William & Mary when her family was living in Virginia Beach in the early 1990s.

“I remember quite vividly being a little kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and driving by the campus and looking out the window and thinking, ‘I’m going to go there someday,’” she says. “I always excelled athletically and academically, so it was the perfect fit that I ended up at William & Mary playing sports.”

Basketball took her in a different direction at first, however. While attending James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, she was recruited by both William & Mary and Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. She spent her freshman and sophomore years at SMU, but when she learned there was an opening on the W&M team, she took the opportunity to move closer to home.

Thinking she might follow her parents’ career path, Cruse majored in kinesiology.

“At the time, William & Mary had one of the very few undergraduate programs that involved working on an actual cadaver as part of an anatomy course, and I spent one of my summers at William & Mary taking that class,” she says. “It was very hard. I’m proud to say I passed with an A-minus.”

Although she ultimately didn’t pursue health care as a profession, Cruse says her studies at William & Mary have helped her as a basketball player and as a referee.

“It gave a foundational understanding of how the body works,” she says. “As an athlete, an actor or dancer, you’re really attuned to your body, and the way it speaks to you. So, having a foundation of kinesiology connects the intuitive sense with the informational.”

After transferring from SMU, Cruse was required to sit out for her sophomore year, but she continued to practice with the William & Mary team. A knee ligament injury limited her ability to play during her junior year.

“I did play my senior year,” she says. “It was a little bittersweet in terms of just a short window to play.”

At William & Mary, she formed close friendships with teammates and other fellow athletes that have continued since they graduated. As someone with a multiracial background — her mother is from Kingston, Jamaica, while her California-native father has English and Scottish roots — Cruse also found camaraderie in a William & Mary group for students with Caribbean ties.

One of her good friends from her time as a student is former Tribe tennis player Megan Moulton-Levy ’07, who shares her Jamaican heritage and went on to play tennis professionally. Both alumnae were speakers in the same William & Mary Women’s Weekend panel discussion.

“The athletics community was just a really close-knit, family-based program,” Cruse says. “Running into teammates now speaks to how true that is — you might not see somebody for years and then the moment you see them, it’s nothing but love, happiness and reconnection.”

A Sisterhood of Athletes

Cruse’s schedule as a referee occasionally brings her back into contact with former teammates. While refereeing an NCAA game at the University of Virginia last fall, she heard someone yell her name from the stands and turned around to see Jalen Boone ’07, who lives in the Charlottesville area.

Boone says she was interested to see how the UVA team performed under head coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton, a former Hofstra University athlete she remembers playing against while on the William & Mary team.

“For the first time in a long time, I got season tickets so I could take my son and family to go watch, and of course there was T on the floor,” Boone says. “It was nice to make that connection again. The next time she was at a game, she automatically looked up to see if I was there. And so then we chatted for a bit.”

Boone recalls Cruse as a hardworking and intense player and a supportive teammate. “As a person, she is lovely, a great friend, always there for you.”

Along with Cruse’s competitive nature and determination, former W&M basketball player Julianne “JuJu” Thomas-Drolet ’09 remembers her as someone who likes to laugh and goof around.

“Some of my best memories with T were when we were in the locker room, preparing for practice or for a game. We would always have rap or hip-hop music playing and she would be dancing and we would try to follow her moves,” says Thomas-Drolet, who returned home to Quebec after graduating from William & Mary and lives in Montreal. “It was a good way to release stress and laugh a little bit and bust a move.”

Cruse still has a rap demo she recorded while she was at W&M, inspired by artists such as Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. “It was a way to express my poetry and creativity, and the athlete in me loved the movement,” she says.

For the W&M Athletics banquet in the spring of her senior year, Cruse joined two football players in performing a rap they wrote.

“It was all about celebrating William & Mary and the Tribe, and the different teams and the accomplishments, and how life as a student athlete is, and it was set to some cool, dope beats,” she says.

Thomas-Drolet was delighted to see Cruse in January while attending a University of North Carolina vs. Notre Dame women’s basketball game in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“I didn’t know she was going to be refereeing that game and it was an amazing coincidence,” ThomasDrolet says. “But I have been following her career. Every time I see her on TV, if I’m by myself I’ll call my mom or my sister or my dad and say, ‘My old teammate’s on TV!’ Sometimes I can’t focus on the game — I’ll focus on T because I’m just so proud.”

Cruse meets her former W&M basketball coach, Debbie Taylor ’86, for lunch or coffee when her officiating work takes her to Durham, North Carolina, where Taylor is a senior associate director at Duke Cancer Institute and Duke Children’s Development.

Taylor also moonlights as a college basketball analyst on sports television channels and streaming services, and in that role, she has had a chance to observe Cruse as a referee from a courtside vantage point. At East Carolina University earlier this year, Taylor was at the broadcast table preparing for a game to start when she saw Cruse on the court: “I jumped out from behind the table and gave her a hug.”

“Officiating is not an easy business for someone to rise to the top,” Taylor says. “It’s a tremendous amount of travel. It’s a lot of pressure, especially being on the court in those big-time games when they’re close. But she does it incredibly well. She quickly rose through the ranks, and as one of the higher-level officials, she’s always in demand.”

As a referee, Cruse projects confidence, Taylor says. “She’s really stoic and I think you have to be that way to be a good official. You have to have tough skin. You can’t be reactionary.”

‘The Wind Caught Me’

At first, officiating basketball games was an easy way for Cruse to earn money during breaks while she was attending William & Mary. Her father, Todd Cruse P ’06, assigned football and basketball referees for Vienna Youth Inc., and he recruited Tiara and her brother, Ty Cruse. In the summers, she would officiate Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball games.

“It was exciting and engaging, and it connected me to the sport in a way that I’m not sure being a fan or even coaching could, because you're literally on the court and your officiating community becomes your team,” she says. “It was a very similar experience as being a player.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, Cruse started working as a market analyst at commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield in Washington, D.C., and considered applying to law school or medical school. She continued officiating on the side at high school and then college basketball games, moving up from Division III to Division I, and later the NBA G League and WNBA. Eventually, her schedule as a referee became so demanding that it was clear she could not continue doing both jobs. Meanwhile, she was accepted for U.S. Coast Guard Officer Candidate School, giving her another potential career path.

“I remember having a phone conversation with my mom (Sandra Watt P ’06), while standing in front of the White House after work, debating whether I should go into the military or stay a civilian and keep refereeing,” she says. “It felt like jumping off a cliff and expanding my wings and hoping I would fly. The wind caught me, and I definitely have soared since then.”

After officiating full time for a couple of years, Cruse decided to continue her education and enrolled in a sports management program at Columbia University in 2013. Taking one course per semester, she completed the program in December 2016 and received her master’s degree in May 2017. Instructors included officials with the New York Jets, the NBA and Anheuser-Busch, among others.

“That degree allowed me to understand more deeply how the business of sports works, especially with associations, organizations, conferences and league offices,” she says. “It gave me a well-rounded understanding of not only the game of basketball, but the business of basketball.”

While studying at Columbia, Cruse was invited to join a small group of WNBA referees to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for the National Basketball Referee Association, comprising NBA, WNBA and NBA G League referees.

“I enjoyed the whole process of meeting alongside the NBA executives and WNBA executives and working with them to strike a deal,” she says.

Advocating for more equitable pay was a key issue in the negotiations, Cruse says, noting that semi-pro NBA G League referees can earn more than professional WNBA referees.

“The WNBA is the most elite women’s basketball in the entire world, and you have to go through the G League to get to either the NBA or WNBA,” she says. “So you should unequivocally be paid more as a WNBA referee than somebody who has less experience. I still advocate for this because WNBA officials are still paid below market rate, to this day.”

When she was a new college basketball referee, Cruse says she was discouraged from applying to officiate men’s games, which paid more. Since then, some conferences have begun paying referees the same amount for men’s and women’s games, but in others, a men’s basketball referee still earns about $1,000 more per game. (Editor's note: William & Mary has developed a plan to ensure gender equity in W&M Athletics. Read more at: magazine.wm.edu/gender-equity.)

There is also a significant gender pay disparity for professional basketball players. The average NBA player earns approximately 44 times what the average WNBA player makes, with a base salary of about $5.4 million, compared with about $120,600 for the WNBA, according to an NPR report.

The arrest of WNBA star Brittney Griner last year in Russia brought attention to the issue, because one way that professional women athletes supplement their income is by playing outside the U.S. during their off-season.

“Certainly it’s an unfortunate circumstance, and I am just grateful that she’s back home,” Cruse says of Griner’s saga. “I did see that she signed a year deal with the Phoenix Mercury, so she’ll be back out on the court this season. Hopefully we can get to a place in America where WNBA players don’t have to go abroad to earn the money they should be able to earn playing the sport they love in the country they call home.”

Seeing the World

During a respite after the frenetic schedule of the NCAA tournament and before the start of the WNBA season May 19, Cruse chatted via video connection from her temporary home base in Los Angeles, where her partner, singer and actress Ciara Renée, was appearing in the world premiere musical “The Lonely Few” at the Geffen Playhouse to stellar reviews.

When they met two years ago, Renée didn’t follow women’s basketball and Cruse had no interest in musical theater. That started to change when each saw the other in their element.

“I love watching her perform and seeing the choices she makes on the stage and the depth of art and intelligence that exist in acting,” says Cruse, who attended several performances of Renée’s recent show. “She’s beyond talented.”

From across the room, Renée pipes in playfully, “Tell me more!” As Cruse picks up Darling, their Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Renée joins the conversation. Her introduction to women’s basketball was a 2021 WNBA Finals game Cruse officiated in which the Chicago Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury to become league champions for the first time.

“A lot of what we do is similar,” says Renée, who was the first Black actress to play Elsa in a Broadway production of “Frozen.” “We both travel a lot. We both have people watching us. We have to put ourselves out there and keep our bodies healthy and able to do our jobs every night.”

One major difference Cruse sees is that despite being on camera in widely watched sports events, “my job is to perform my duties and be as inconspicuous as possible.” She mostly stays away from social media to avoid becoming a target for fans who are angry about a call with which they disagree.

When they’re not on the road for work or traveling for fun, the pair reside in New York City’s Manhattan borough. Cruse also visits her parents in Florida.

During the 2023 WNBA season, she’ll be working alongside fellow referee Isaac Barnett ’15, whom she has gotten to know over the past few years. The two spent concentrated time together in Florida during the 2020 WNBA season when concerns about the spread of COVID-19 prompted an isolation zone dubbed the “Wubble” — a mix of women and bubble.

“We had already bonded as W&M alumni and WNBA referees,” Cruse says. “He’s like a little brother to me.”

Barnett recalls seeing Cruse for the first time when he was a student watching television during winter break in a house on Jamestown Road.

“She was working a G League game in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” he says. “At first it didn’t even register with me that she was a woman referee in a men’s basketball game. I remember being impressed with how incredible she was at controlling the game, and how sharp and polished she looked when signaling a foul. I thought, ‘That looks really good. I might steal that for myself.’”

Like Cruse, Barnett started playing basketball at a young age; he began working as a referee at age 13. After graduating from William & Mary with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he followed in her footsteps as a G League and WNBA referee.

“When I finally got hired, she was one of the first people I was looking forward to meeting,” he says. “Of course we have that connection with William & Mary, and she automatically looked out for me.”

Cruse hopes more young athletes will become interested in working as referees — perhaps some of the William & Mary women’s basketball players she spoke with last fall.

“There is definitely a shortage of referees in general, certainly women referees and women referees of color,” she says. “I think there needs to be recruitment and programs to train potential referees and bring them up the pipeline.”

One of the challenges of the job, frequent travel, is also a selling point, Cruse says: Her work as a referee has taken her to Lima, Peru, for the 2019 Pan American Games, and to Mexico, the Czech Republic and Toronto, among other places.

“It’s another way to stay connected to the game,” she says, “and the game can take you many places around the world and can elevate your life.”