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Making Calls, Breaking Barriers

At 87, pioneer among men’s basketball officials still has a hand in the game as conference coordinator

Burch was the first black official in the Southern Conference and among the first in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Photo credit: Submitted by Jim Burch

Whether it was men’s college basketball officiating or working in his chosen professional field of public education in North Carolina, Jim Burch has spent a lifetime being a pioneer.

Jim Burch

In the late 1960s, he became the first black men’s basketball official in the Southern Conference and was among the first in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In his educational career, his hiring as the assistant state superintendent for administrative services in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in 1970 made national news. 

All of the accomplishments were unheard of for a black man in those times. And Burch is still going strong: At age 87, he is the coordinator of officials for men’s and women’s basketball for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

“Becoming the first assistant state superintendent for a department of education in the South was much more important than officiating basketball games,” Burch said. “It put me in position where I could become more influential in decisions made about public school education in North Carolina for a number of years.”

While he helped shape the course of public education during the day, Burch also had a passion for officiating basketball. He worked his first high school game in 1953 and was paid $3.

Burch, who graduated from Fayetteville Teachers College (now Fayetteville State University), where he played football and baseball while earning a degree in elementary education, eventually became a collegiate official and began working games in the CIAA, a league where all the members are historically black colleges and universities. In 1967, he wrote letters to non-HBCU conferences asking for the opportunity to work games in those leagues.

The only person to respond was J. Dallas Shirley, the Southern Conference coordinator of officials. Burch was around 40 then and was told the age limit to start officiating in the Southern Conference was 35. 

“I told him that was discrimination,” Burch recalled. Shirley agreed and invited Burch to attend a referees meeting at Duke University.

Burch remembers going to the meeting and when he sat down, two white officials asked him what he was doing there. Shirley immediately said that Burch had as much right to be there as anyone else.

“That was the kind of a statement that impacts your life, and you never forget it,” said Burch, who has been inducted into seven halls of fame and was an alternate official for the 1977 Men’s Final Four.

After two years of officiating freshman basketball games, Burch was promoted through a vote by Southern Conference coaches to work varsity games in 1969. Around the same time, he also officiated games in the ACC.

Basketball officials often take verbal abuse from fans, and when you add that Burch was the only black referee working in those leagues, he was subjected to racial taunts.

He recalled one particularly bad time at a school, which he declined to name, where the crowd chanted racial slurs at him. After the final buzzer, the president of the university told him that if he ever worked a game at the school’s gymnasium again, he would not be subjected to such verbal abuse.

“As fate had it, I was back at that school for a game two weeks later, and I didn’t hear a word,” Burch said. “When it comes to putting up with stuff like that, you still have to keep on going. You can’t let it affect you.”

Burch worked in the CIAA for 29 years, the Southern Conference for 21 years and the ACC for 18 years. He also worked games in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Sun Belt Conference and refereed in 11 NCAA tournaments.

“The disturbing part is I know that there were many qualified men of color who were denied the opportunity due to the color of their skin,” Burch said. “Was that fair to them? The answer is definitely no.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.