Black Division I ref just wants to be the best

Bynum didn't play but has fallen in love with the sport

February 26, 2010|By Mike Preston

Nearly a year ago, Chris Bynum was chosen along with two other African-Americans, Keith McAdoo and Tyrone Fisher, to officiate the North Carolina-Detroit lacrosse game.

They were so surprised, they jokingly called it "The Obama Game."

"You think we were surprised?" asked Bynum, 39, from Greensboro, N.C. "The trainer from Denver, who was African-American, walked way over across the field to shake our hands. He said he never thought he'd live to see this happen. Heck, we kept a couple of the game balls and took them home."

Bynum is one of several African-American referees working Division I lacrosse games. He officiated the Johns Hopkins-Delaware game Tuesday night and was an underlying story behind Kyle Wharton, Steven Boyle and Mike Kimmel combining for 11 goals and four assists.

I've been covering college lacrosse since 1987 and have never seen an African-American officiate a Division I game. Some other longtime observers agreed Tuesday night, including Towson's Tony Seaman, in his 29th season as a college head coach.

"Never. I've seen women ref in the fall with scrimmages, but that's the first time I've seen an African-American referee," Seaman said. "I think it's great that somebody's going to come up and take that chance. I thought he did a good job. I watched him, and he was in good position. So that's great."

It's great for lacrosse. Minorities had been slow to adopt the sport, and lacrosse had been just as slow in opening its doors to people of color.

But within the past 20 years, a lot of barriers have been broken. Some are still left. (Psst. African-Americans don't have to be midfielders).

But Bynum likes what he is seeing.

"Lacrosse is still considered an elitist sport because there are certain stereotypes you can't get rid of," he said. "People can't afford lacrosse equipment as compared to basketball and soccer, where all you need is a ball for a bunch of kids and some shinguards.

"But what I'm seeing is that more and more kids are getting into lacrosse, and it has now become a state-sanctioned sport in Carolina," he said. "Football coaches are becoming more aware of the similarities as far as foot speed and eye-hand coordination. You go over to North Carolina and see what Joe Breschi is doing there - he has diversity, a real good mix of players. The face of the game is changing, and it's a work in progress."

Bynum is in his fifth year officiating lacrosse and also does major college football games. During the fall and winter the past six years, he has spent a lot of Saturdays with Texas coach Mack Brown and Miami's Randy Shannon.

But he got just as much excitement out of officiating the game at Hopkins, which provided him with a new experience.

"They got a band for the lacrosse team, now that's good stuff," said Bynum, laughing. "In football, the crowd is kept away from you. Here, everything is right on top of you, the band, the crowd, the players. You can feel the pulse of the game. I can imagine what this place is like on a warm night in the spring when these teams are playing better and getting after each other."

Bynum says he has encountered few problems regarding race in lacrosse. He knows he is a new face and says he doesn't want to be oversensitive to coaches who get excited and animated on the sidelines.

Bynum can't because coaches such as Denver's Bill Tierney, Hopkins' Dave Pietramala, Maryland's Dave Cottle and Seaman are all equal-opportunity yellers.

The only colors they see are black-and-white stripes.

"Pietramala was very vocal at Carolina last year, and he is even more vocal at home," Bynum said. "I never want to take away from a coach or a player's passion for the game. All the great coaches yell.

"They aren't yelling to offend you, and they aren't yelling for the next call," he said. "They're fighting for the next run. It's all calculated, and the great ones use you to get the best out of their players."

Last year in the high school state semifinals in North Carolina, a parent kept complaining that Bynum didn't call fouls on the other team because that team had an African-American coach. Bynum had that person removed from the field.

Tuesday night, some Hopkins fans kept yelling, "You never played the game," when they thought Bynum made a bad call.

Those fans were right. Bynum never played the game, but he would have gladly traded in his baseball glove for a stick if lacrosse had been available to him growing up near Greensboro.

Bynum now has a passion for the game. During the summer, he'll get together with several lacrosse buddies to run clinics in the area.

The longer he stays in the game, the better he gets. Bynum has spent a long time learning from longtime official Paul Espinosa. Bynum's goal is to one day get into a final four and the NCAA championship game.

He already has worked some major bowl games in football.

"I like the physicality, the contact of the game, and how it's played," Bynum said. "I like the pure poetry of over-the-back passes and between-the-leg shots. Lacrosse is a beautiful sport.

"I want to help expose the sport to more minorities. I want to get a team involved in the middle school program here," Bynum said. "As a minority, I feel I have to work harder, run harder and cover better than everybody else. I can't afford to miss the kid stepping in the crease. I just want to be the best out there."

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