Shortly after the opening whistle sounded to begin the Maryland Prep School Championship game at Johns Hopkins, Karen Bathras waded into the mob of substitutes on one side of the bench and, in a commanding, but not overbearing tone, warned the team: "Gentlemen, don't forget! Stand behind the line, don't creep up"! The players, most of who towered over the 5'2" Bathras, nodded in unison and took a step back. With that subtle gesture, history was made. Bathras, one of the game's bench officials, became the first female referee to work a championship game in what is considered to be the finest high school lacrosse league in the country. However, breaking new ground is old hat to a woman who never saw a men's lacrosse game in person until she worked one in 1997.
Karen has spent her entire adult life busting through barriers, but not for the obvious reasons. Karen's integration into untraditional roles happened not because she was out to rock the boat, but more because the stuff she wanted to do, the direction she wanted her life to take, seemed interesting. She is a recently retired lieutenant in the fire and rescue department who is looking to teach the important lessons that on the job experience taught her. In fact, it was on a Saturday, at the firehouse, that the idea to officiate men's lacrosse first occurred to Karen. She, along with several other firefighters, was hanging around the station. On the TV was a college lacrosse game of the week. John Sheehan, Karen's supervisor with the fire department and the commissioner for high school lacrosse in the Baltimore metro area, was watching the game and heard Karen say, to no one in particular, "You know, I could do that". Sheehan overheard the remark and said "Of course you could do that! Why don't you join the men's lacrosse officials' group and start refereeing?" Karen replied "I don't know. I've never even seen a men's game in person before." Sheehan was persistent- "Why don't you just try it", he said. So Karen made the decision to give it a shot. Karen said, "I went to some classes, and I absolutely loved it. The first game I saw was one I did, and I have never turned back. I love it. "
Sports and athletics have been a part of Karen's life as long as she can remember- being part of a huge family plays a part in that- growing up with a family chock full of men and boys demands it. Karen has two older brothers and five younger brothers along with a younger sister. Just keeping one's head above water with all that testosterone around was probably difficult enough, but, in reality, thriving in such a family prepared her for a lifetime of living and working side by side with men. Karen and her brothers and sister were all athletic and played sports throughout school. She graduated from Glen Burnie High School in 1977, then attended Anne Arundel Community College and Frostburg State where she played field hockey and lacrosse, "back when women's lacrosse was a very different game than it is today", she explained. By the time she decided to become a firefighter, Karen's family experience made her well versed in the fraternal life and, therefore, she was immediately accepted by her male brethren. "I never treated them differently, they never treated me differently" Karen said.
Taking classes on the rules and mechanics of men's lacrosse is one thing. Taking the field and blowing a whistle is something else altogether. Like all applicants and young officials, Karen began her career working youth league games. During the early stages of officiating, she did not hear many comments from coaches and players. It was the parents and the grandparents that could be heard questioning her presence down on the field from their garden chairs "up on the hill". Karen recalls murmuring in the crowd, "In those first games: I was nervous, very nervous. At first, I got a lot of comments like, 'Hey this isn't the girls' game; you need to do girls lacrosse.' But once I got some experience, that didn't bother me, and now once they see me do a game, they say, 'Oh, maybe she does know what she's talking about, she does know what she's doing."
Now, as an 8 year veteran, having worn the stripes in youth league, high school and college scrimmages, Karen is much more relaxed when she walks onto the field. She says preparation is the key to success between the lines and remaining one step ahead of the critics "I know the rules, I study the rules, I go to all the meetings and I study all the rules changes. But I know I am a step behind everybody else, being a woman. Even after 8 years I know right away they are going to say, 'Wait a minute, that's a woman coming on the field.' I know about that, so I need to be one step up, one step ahead of everybody. So I study really hard- but at the same time I enjoy it so much, most of that stuff doesn't bother me. I have so much fun when I go out on the field that I forget everything else and enjoy the players, and the coaches- to a certain extent."
One thing's for sure- when Karen is blowing the whistle, there is a philosophy of the game going on unlike the mind-set of the former lax jock that's turned to officiating once his playing career is over. Karen explains: "The big thing I hear- I never played the game so how do I know the game? How do I know the rules? I think it's almost the opposite. If you have not played the game, but you know the rules, you know what you are looking for. Instead of letting players get away with something you did as a player, (oh, all the players do that, so let it go), I just go by the rules. I know that according to this rule, that's a personal foul, according to that rule, it's a technical foul and that's how I judge it."
The other major aspect of officiating is game management; handling temperamental, excitable athletes and coaches in the heat of competition. Karen's method is tried and true. The way she approaches it; "I try to be very firm. I call them gentlemen, I am firm but not to the point of being bossy or mean about it- I treat them with respect and in return they treat me with respect and I think that's the key."
Some fans may have been judgmental about a lady officiating the men's game, but not Karen's fellow referees. Karen says her partners have been overwhelmingly supportive. "I've only heard positive things from the other referees and they have been very, very helpful. They could not help me enough. After every game I make it a point to ask if there is anything I can do to get better, anything I need to do. Everyone I have worked with has been very helpful. It has helped me to be a better ref. The key thing is never be afraid to ask and always encourage the other referees to give me hints, even criticism, to make me a better referee. A lot of guys who have been in the game for 20 years 30 years-they are wonderful. I tell them at the beginning of the game, if I can do anything better, just tell me. If I get a rule wrong or something, they are wonderful about letting me know and if I have a good game, they are very supportive, and they will let other guys know I did well and recommend that I work with them."
That MIAA A Conference title game was a huge step up for Karen, her biggest game to date. She remembers, "I was real nervous there, but I thought do the best you can, do the best you can- nobody's perfect. And it turned out great, I had a great time being a part of the fans yelling and screaming, the coaches and the players very intense-, but I was able to keep it on a non-personal level and everything turned out fine.
Now it's time for Karen to reach even higher in the men's game. She is applying to referee on the collegiate level. That process requires completing an application package, documenting the games she's worked, including state playoffs, and forwarding a couple of referees' recommendations to the collegiate appointing authorities. According to Sheehan, none of this will be a problem: "She's been really great. Karen is accepted by the coaches and the rest of the officials. I get good reports on her. I have worked on the field with Karen and, you know, she's really a good referee. She handles herself really well. One athletic director from a MIAA school even called me one night after a game Karen worked. He said 'We'll have her anytime,' and applauded the Southern Lacrosse Officials Association's diversity." Karen is the first woman to ref a state playoff game, the first to be Chief Bench Official in a private school championship game and the first woman to be a bench official in an MIAA A conference championship. Sheehan says "I would use her anywhere, not only because she's good, but she's available and willing to go anywhere at a moment's notice."
Karen is anxious to take the next step. "I realize college coaches are a lot different from high school coaches" she said. "They look at it a lot differently than high school coaches. They make a lot more money, there is much more intensity. I am a little nervous about that. But I have met a number of college coaches, they know me by name, so that helps, it's not like I've never been seen before but that makes me rather nervous going in there." Still, she feels she is ready to referee on the collegiate level. "I would like to break in by working junior college games and go up from there. My objective is to work Division 3 games. I'm getting up there in age a little bit, and it will take a number of years to get there, but that's what I'd like to do."
And Karen encourages other women to follow in her footsteps and give men's lacrosse a shot. If and when that occurs, Karen is ready and willing to provide all the counsel the new applicant would need. And wouldn't that be a welcome change! Karen could then become a mentor to a female official in the men's game with a woman's perspective - a luxury she never had. "My advice for future female referees is dedication and commitment to go beyond the normal expectations, develop thick skin and do not take anything personally. Know the rules, be physically fit and never give up trying to be the best possible", she said.
Several years ago, an officer of the local officials' board addressed the membership by typically and traditionally referring to the group as "gentlemen". After five or so years of hearing this, Karen had had enough. She rose from her seat and, uncharacteristically for her, chastised the speaker: "Hey! There's a woman in the room too. We are not all 'gentlemen' in here. Please stop using that term!" From that point on, at all meetings and functions, the S.L.O.A. members have been collectively referred to as "gentlemen and Karen". Perhaps there are other women out there ready to take up Bathras' challenge and work as officials in the men's game. When that happens, the group will be called "gentlemen and ladies". However, even before that occurs, the men's Collegiate Officials Council should welcome Karen Bathras into their ranks. Not only will history be made again, but a tradition will change. The "gentlemen" of men's refereeing will have to be known as "lady and gentlemen". And I have a feeling that the college game will be better off for having this lady wearing the stripes.
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