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Officials must weigh risk factors when games resume

Douglas Fritz • Apr 27, 2020 at 6:00 PM

Area high school officials have lost a source of income because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and they could face some tough decisions when sports resume.

And a profession already facing a shortage could take another hit.

When the games ceased last month, officials lost paychecks — a small adjustment for some, a difficult situation for others. Dennis Brooks, a 16-year veteran of officiating, said the money he makes as a football referee isn’t figured into his monthly budget.

“Officiating is usually just extra money for me, and I’d say that’s the same for most,” Brooks said. “But officials’ ages go from college kids up to retirees. For some, it’s the only job they have.”

One source of income that evaporated was weekend events in baseball, softball, soccer or others.

“The officials who are probably hurting most are the ones who regularly worked weekend tournaments,” Brooks said. “They would do a dozen or so games and walk out with maybe $400. That stuff has dried up. And there’s no unemployment insurance for those guys to file.”

But even when the income stream trickles back into place, will there be obstacles for officials?

In Tennessee, many officials are older, the segment of the population at the highest risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19.

Will officials who are more than 60 years old hustle back to the playing fields and risk exposure for themselves or loved ones?

“I’ve worried about that,” said the 49-year-old Brooks. “Baseball has pitchers licking their fingers, and football is the opposite of social distancing. I don’t know how we can protect officials who have risk factors.

“I do fear officials with risk factors will opt to not work games in 2020. It may be them with risk factors, or their spouses and they don’t want to expose them.”

But Brooks said many officials will beat a hasty path back to action.

“Most of us officiate because we love the sport,” Brooks said. “I would guess most officials will be as anxious to get on the field as the kids.”

Looking forward to the fall, there is a question on how much time football teams would need to prepare for the season if the virus lingers deep into the summer. A shorter preseason could also affect the officials.

Brooks said more experienced officials would be in a better position to hit the ground running even with limited preparation time.

“I’m sure experienced ones could wing it,” he said. “But if you’re not in the rulebook consistently, the time will come when you make mistakes. It’s easy to get confused on finer points if you haven’t been reviewing them.”

Another potential issue is less revenue from fewer fans in the stands. Could that lead to less money for officials?

Smaller Friday night crews in football don’t seem to be a good option.

“Offenses have developed to the point where you really cannot effectively cover the field with less than a crew of seven,” Brooks said. “So yeah, cutting our crews means we don’t see that receiver getting held at the line or have the best angle to judge whether a fumble occurred.”

Brooks said his main hope is having a chance for the kids to play and officials to officiate.

“I’ll be crushed if there’s no high school football,” he said. “That’s the best 12, 13 nights of my year.”