Some football officials uncomfortable returning amid COVID-19

Nearly one-third of youth and high school sports officials do not feel comfortable officiating during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Referee magazine survey released Thursday that got nearly 20,000 responses, 874 from Georgia.

Richard Williams, the assigning agent for West Georgia Football Officials in LaGrange, said the 32.5% cited nationally probably reflects most Georgia officiating associations. The first regular-season football games are 10 weeks away.

“Older officials are not eager to put themselves in harm’s way,’’ Williams said. “As the data dictates, we are clearly not out of the woods yet with this virus. I am a little concerned because the most effective way to stay out of harm’s way is social distancing, disinfecting and staying away from others if you are sick.’’

Staying away won’t be easy. Football officials often huddle and converse. They handle the ball more than most players.

“Football is a close-contact sport,’’ said Keith Hammond of Atlanta’s Georgia Football Officials. “The ball is handled by at least four people on every play – umpire, center, quarterback, ball carrier/receiver – and typically at least one other official.’’

Andre Lowe, coordinator of the Atlanta Quarterback Football Association, said older officials are the most concerned, which the survey confirmed.

“I'm a little uneasy right now because there are still a lot of unknowns,’’ Lowe said. “I know that the schools and GHSA will do everything they can to protect the student athletes and the officials, but they can only do so much.’’

Ralph Green of Capital City Football in Fairburn said he believed the GHSA should consider making masks or face coverings mandatory for officials, who then can use whistles that operate with a button.

“We don’t actually know where the virus exists,’’ Green said. “It can have a grave effect on the officiating staff because not everyone will have the same concerns about the pandemic, which we see often where everyone doesn’t social distance nor wear protective masks. I hope the GHSA does take a look at this and makes sure that the necessary health options are in place at the game sites.’’

GHSA helps with new rules

The GHSA’s supervisor of officials, Ernie Yarbrough, sent a letter to officiating  associations last week announcing a new bylaw mandating that member schools sanitize the officials’ supplies and their dressing areas prior to their arrival.

Yarbrough also wrote that officials should consider arriving in uniform and avoid locker rooms altogether.

“This is a great idea to address the sanitation issue, but will officials be mentally prepared and organized to work that contest?’’ Todd Downes of Georgia Football Officials said. “This time before a game is what we call our ‘pregame’ and is a time to unwind from the week, discuss that night's game, dress into uniform and mentally prepare to officiate a high school football game.’’

Downes and others also worried that the pandemic could discourage officials from joining the profession at a time when there’s an officials shortage. In 2018, several Georgia games were moved to Thursday or Saturday because not enough officials were available on Friday.

“The COVID-19 situation is really making it tough to get newer men and women to consider getting involved,’’ Downes said. “This is a nationwide concern for all sports. To expand on this, a large percentage of our group falls into the 45 to 60 age group and we must continue to find a way to bring in more people in their 20s. Our group has a saying that, ‘Each year the players stay the same age, but we each get a year older.’ ‘’

But other association leaders said they’ve seen no impact so far on new or returning officials. Patrick Ingram, the assigning secretary of Atlanta Area Football Officials, said more of his officials are returning than usual.

“I am not sure if it is due to financial pressures from the economic side, but virtually all of our officials have said that they plan to return to officiating this year,’’ Ingram said. “We typically do have some drop off between this time of the year and the actual season starting, but that is always due to unforeseen life circumstances that get in the way. We will see how it goes, but we really haven't had anyone reach out to say that they did not intend to return until vaccines were available.’’

Most officials ready to return

Jeff Greene of Multi-County Football in Marietta said his association’s retention rate of 85% is higher than normal and that he’d picked up 31 new applicants, though newbies don’t always last through training.

“I have talked with a lot of them, and most are excited to resume officiating,’’ Greene said. “Many have concerns about safety precautions such as dressing facilities with enough space for safe distancing and proper cleaning prior to our arrival. Most did seem relieved and OK with the mandate to all schools to provide disinfected dress areas large enough to allow for safe distancing from GHSA.’’

Ray McAllister of Lanier Football Officials in northeast Georgia, Chip Huffman of the Augusta Football Officials, Larry Hobgood of Atlanta Peachstate Football Officials and Bill Palmer of the Northeast Georgia Officials were others in the majority who felt comfortable working games.

“My guys are ready to get back on the field,’’ McAllister said. “We haven’t had our first meeting yet, so I truthfully can’t answer for everyone. Personally, I’m not too overly concerned. If the schools take precautions to protect all, I’m good.’’

Said Huffman, “I would work a game tomorrow with no additional precautions, though I would be willing to wear masks, gloves, etc., if mandated. Having said that, I can certainly understand the dynamics that might cause any individual to be hesitant to return, particularly those concerned about taking something back home to health-compromised family members.’’

Palmer, entering his 49th season this fall, said he believed 90% of his association’s officials felt safe to return.

“As an official over 65, I have no hesitancy whatsoever starting back to officiate,’’ Palmer said. “I think the hyper awareness of sanitization and separation has created a safe enough environment. At this stage, the virus appears to be diminished to the degree that we can and should resume high school sports and officiating.’’

Referee magazine administered the survey in May to support an August feature story on returning to sports. The magazine said it released the results early because it was surprised at the volume of response.