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Football Zebras
2020Coronavirus PandemicSocially distant officiating: Just how is this going to work?

Socially distant officiating: Just how is this going to work?

As of this writing, the NFL plans on having a full regular season schedule even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The league has canceled the first and fourth preseason weeks, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game (and it would not surprise me if they cancel the other two).

The three big ways to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 are washing hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing.

There aren’t many natural opportunities to wash hands during a football game, wearing a mask while huffing and puffing during a play will prove difficult, and maintaining a six-foot social distance is impossible when properly playing the game of football.

Yet, the NFL plans to move forward with a season, which means the NFL needs 119 officials ready to report to game sites to officiate. This is a tall order.

Official Personal Protective Equipment

Once the season kicks off, NFL officials will wear masks and gloves to protect themselves and each other during the game.

There is also a strong possibility that officials will use electronic whistles. The electronic whistle sounds with the push of a button, which will require officials to learn whole new muscle memory to operate. Instead of pushing air through a whistle, they will reach for a button and hope people can hear the tone.

Wearing gloves keeps COVID-19 off hands and fingers, but officials will have to remember not to touch their face. While it will be safer, I’m sure officials don’t relish wearing gloves in tropical Miami in September.

Masks. The great debate. Many of us can’t wait to take our masks off when we get into the car after grocery shopping. Can you imagine wearing a mask for three hours of a football game? It is difficult to breathe through a mask even when at rest, can you imagine trying to catch your breath after sprinting after a 90-yard touchdown? Also, officials who wear glasses will have to find a way to prevent foggy lenses.

If officials want to officiate this year, they’ll have to wear a mask. But, it will be a huge adjustment.

Age and risk

NFL officials range in age from late 30s to late 60s. Almost all are in excellent shape. But, some may have risk factors (high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic pulmonary issues) that might make them high risk to COVID-19. Tragically, COVID-19 has claimed people of all shapes, ages, and sizes, but is especially lethal to the older population. If I were an official north of age 55, I’d be thinking twice about my own health as it relates to officiating this year.

But, officials have more to worry about. There is a risk in carrying the virus, then transferring it to a vulnerable person. What about an official whose spouse is getting cancer treatment, has COPD, chronic bronchitis, kidney dialysis, or some other high risk health issue? An official may be responsible for caring for an elderly parent, or caring for an immunocompromised child. Is officiating in 2020 worth bringing COVID-19 home?

Off-field responsibilities or age might force an official to have to take the 2020 season off.

There’s no social distancing in football

While the goal of each official is to stay safely away from the action, they cannot do their duties while remaining socially distant.

First of all, each official has to handle the ball. Try as ball boys might to keep the footballs dry and clean, that ball is going to be sweated on, coughed on, sneezed on, snotted on, and spit on. As a high school football umpire, I even had a ball thrown up on by a center who drank too much red drink (I thought he was dying for a moment seeing red fluid coming out of him, but I digress).

Officials have to handle the first down chains, replace knocked over end zone pylons, and pick up penalty flags and bean bags that may or may not have been spit on. All of these pieces of equipment have the danger of transmitting COVID-19, and an official hasn’t even touched a player yet.

Officials usually try to quell confrontations, but that involves getting in between and sometimes physically moving sweaty, yelling players. Even if they don’t put their hands on the players, the spit, sweat and carbon dioxide are flying.

OK, so maybe this one season the NFL can tell officials to not break up fights, just flag the offenders and leave it up to the players to keep the peace. That might work, but there is one play that will force officials to get up close and personal with the players. The fumble scrum.

Mark Pellis announces who recovered the fumble (Chicago Bears)

It’s a hard and sometimes unpleasant job, but officials have to quickly get to the bottom of a fumble scrum to determine possession. I can assure you that players will not voluntarily unpile and leave the fumble recoverer alone. No matter what, officials will have to go digging through humanity.

Schedule and travel

The NFL announced the officiating crews earlier this spring. COVID-19 has disrupted travel across the country. People are susceptible to COVID-19 while flying in an airplane. 

How will this impact officiating schedules? Will the NFL have to put out a second list of crews in order to keep officials more regionalized, possibly within a day’s drive from games? 

What happens if an official is infected with COVID-19? Will that entire crew have to quarantine and be out of commission? Heaven forbid, what happens if an official becomes seriously ill and will have to miss an entire season? There are no swing officials this year. The NFL can handle a few absences, but if officials opt out this year due to safety concerns, and other officials or entire crews get exposed and have to quarantine, there may not be enough officials to go around.

Very difficult year to officiate

Officials will find it hard to call games this year, even if everything goes smoothly. 

I’m sure the NFL and the NFL Referees Association will work together to cover the games with a full crew.

It will take a full team effort by every employee in the NFL to pull this season off. 

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Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"

One thought on “Socially distant officiating: Just how is this going to work?

  1. They could use face shields or a mask and a face shield or neck gaiter that can be used as a mask could work and are the officials uniforms a short sleeve shirt or a long sleeve shirt during the season and could divide the crews up by region or each week and hire more officials

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