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COVID-19 questions slam the world of high school officials

05/26/2020, 12:15pm CDT
By Mark Miller

The unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and its extremely serious potential consequences has led to unsettling times for high school and youth athletics across the United States and world.

And that uncertainty most definitely has infiltrated into the realm of the referee profession. 

To be sure, there are questions that need answers before some officials feel comfortable enough to return to the baseball and softball diamonds, football and soccer fields, and basketball and volleyball courts.

"There are really two major concerns," said Ken Koester, a Milwaukee-area resident who is heavily involved with the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) and Referee magazine. "One is whether or not the leagues will adopt and publicize provisions to enhance the safety of officials. Before the pandemic, I can name locker rooms that house either three (basketball) or five (football) officials that weren't remotely big enough to comfortably dress, let alone now properly social distance the crew. 

"The second major concern is that as officials we aren't given a host of additional safety duties. For example, in basketball some officials believe we've turned into the 'uniform police.' Why is that? The reality is that the teams weren't able to follow the guidelines and rules so it got put onto the backs of the enforcement division. We cannot allow all of the efforts of disinfecting game balls, wiping up floors, policing social distancing on the benches to fall on the backs of the officials. We already have enough on our plate. I'm concerned that will happen."

COVID-19 could make shortage worse

As many know, the number of officials for high school sports in Wisconsin and elsewhere has decreased dramatically over the past decade or so.

In many areas, the number of certified officials available to school districts is far from sufficient. 

There is a concern by some the impact of COVID-19 might hasten the retirement of older officials while also potentially nudging younger would-be referees to wait until its completely safe before getting into officiating.  

On the other hand, some officials might be more than eager to return to the game and be in need of the financial benefit that comes along with working.

"We've got certain sports where the average age of the officials involved put them into the higher risk category as it relates to COVID-19," Koester said. "Add to that, any other officials with underlying health conditions that don't feel comfortable working and it very well could lead to some serious issues if we don't bring enough new officials into the industry.

"On the other hand, historically a down economy leads to more people coming into officiating. There will be a lot of games as conferences, leagues and tournaments will be looking to recoup what they've lost. Likely more games than we've ever seen over shorter period of time. We will need more bodies." 

NASO has 13-point plan for officials returning to work

NASO has been very active in trying to help. guide and protect its members. As such, it has released a 13-point plan for officials to consider as they return to work.

Wearing masks, being vigilant about social distancing, getting tested as often as possible for COVID-19, and making sure the organizations that relaunch games have sufficiently covered the safety of officials are among the highlights of the 13-point plan.

Even with the NASO guidelines, it should be noted that some officials are hesitant to get back into working games until COVID-19 is under control. 

The pandemic guidelines for returning to play put forth by the National Federation of State High School Assocations (NFHS) last week might make things more difficult for officials to police once the games start up again. 

"At this point, I think the outdoor sports such as baseball and softball lend themselves to greater opportunities to work and social distance," Koester said. "Basketball is a tough question because it's one sport where you are simply in such close proximity to the players and the games are held indoors. There is really no way to get around that.

"We have lots of officials across the country examining the use of electronic whistles that are handheld. That alleviates the blowing of the whistle with the spray and air coming out of the whistle. It would also allow them to wear a mask if desired. But as it stands today, there's probably not a great enough inventory and it would be so different that many just wouldn't be comfortable.  

"Returning to officiate today ... I'm not yet sure I'd be comfortable. But by July or August, I would hope that would change and we get back to work. So much of it will come down to personal preference representative of what we are seeing within the state and society today. Some want everything re-opening yesterday while others favor a much more cautious and guarded approach. I expect the officiating ranks will follow a similar path."

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