The looming decision on how or if high school sports will return this fall in Connecticut is on the minds of many, including those who oversee the officiating of events.
The referees of fall sports, some of whom fall into at-risk categories because of their age, will be asked to expose themselves to potential risks due to the ongoing pandemic.
If games return this fall, officials will be mixed in among the players on the field and coaches along the sidelines. They will be handling footballs touched by players after every play, stand at the net of volleyball games in closed gymnasiums and by the sides of swimming pools.
Keeping officials safe while not hindering their ability to properly officiate the games is a topic being discussed by state officials as much as protocols for the student-athletes.
“We would have to work with the comfort level of the officials once we return to play,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said. “A large part of what we will do is we will take into consideration the health and safety of officials. We will look at what safety measures we have to put in place to keep our officials safe, just as we’re trying to keep the athletes safe. I’m confident we will provide a safe environment for officials when high school athletics return to Connecticut.”
In a recent survey in Referee Magazine with nearly 20,000 responses nationwide, 32.5 percent of the officials indicated they would not be comfortable officiating this fall.
According to the survey, officials 65 years and older were more concerned about returning than younger referees. Forty percent of officials over 65 said they were not comfortable returning in the current climate, with 19 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds and 33 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds indicating they were not comfortable.
Breaking it down by region, the Northeast, which includes Connecticut, had the lowest percentage of officials, with 59 percent, saying they were comfortable getting back on the fields this fall.
More than 300 of the responses to the survey came from Connecticut.
“I don’t think we will have issues. Most officials seem eager to return,” said Dan Scavone, director of the CIAC Officials Association. “I have heard from some boards in the state that there are concerns from those in the older groups. No local board has said they’re having big numbers of officials leaving or that they will not be able to cover games this fall.”
In the pandemic, vulnerable individuals are defined by the Center for Disease Control as people 65 years and older, or those with serious underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure, lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma and those with compromised immune systems.
Scavone said the CIAC is working with local officiating boards to develop plans for referees to return safely.
“There are plenty of things to put in place to make officials safe,” Scavone said. “Along with having officials wearing masks and gloves, we’re talking about limiting the number of people who are at the scorers’ tables, not having volleyball teams switch benches, sanitizing balls during the game and having officials use hand-held whistles or devices other than whistles in their mouths.”
Those ideas are just the beginning of what the CIAC and local boards are discussing as the potential start of the fall season moves closer.
The National Federation of State High School Associations is working on adjusting rules for all fall sports to make players and officials safe in terms of the coronavirus.
The CIAC is scheduled to deliver its proposal to the state on returning to play in the fall on Aug. 3 with the hope that football can begin practicing Aug. 17, and all other sports can start Aug. 27. The first day for fall sports competition in Connecticut is presently scheduled for Sept. 10.
Before the pandemic, there was a national shortage of officials, with more officials over the age of 60 than under the age of 30. According to the NFHS, 80 percent of officials quit before their third year for a variety of reasons.
Bill Riccio, who is the commissioner of the New Haven Football Officials Association, said the number of candidates they have received this year is on par with years past.
“We have 13 new people taking the officials courses this summer. That’s about the average. Sometimes it’s 20, sometimes it’s 10. Thirteen is where we would normally be,” Riccio said. “At this juncture, we’re not concerned there will not be enough officials. Our veteran officials are planning to come in next week for meetings and training. Until the CIAC says ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on a season, we’re not sure what exactly we will do. If there’s not a season, we will continue to meet with officials in an abbreviated way so they can stay up on rules and mechanics. We can’t have officials lie fallow and hope they’re good to go next fall.”
The New Haven board has had at least 10 older officials opt out of this season over concerns for their own health or that of someone they live with.
Football in general is the one fall sport most troubling to the CIAC in terms of the amount of contact.
That is true for the officials, as well. Football officials huddle often and one or more of them handles the football after every play. Officials handle the ball more often than players during the game.
Riccio said his board is discussing whether the mechanics of the referees and their positions on the field may be altered this season.
Even moving one official on the football field — for example, the umpire who stands behind the defensive line and linebackers — will alter how all the officials watch and call the game and would require additional training, according to Riccio.
Other fall sports may require fewer changes than football, but all will have to adjust.
In field hockey, referees will be asked to stay wider on the field and work closer to the sidelines.
“We will have the officials not go in so deep near the goal cage,” said Donna Vavrinec, the chairperson of the Connecticut Field Hockey Board of Officials. “We will not be requiring officials to wear masks because they’re constantly running, but they can wear masks if they would like. Right now most of what we’re looking at is their positioning and using more angles since they will be further away.”
Field hockey officials who want to take a year off because of health concerns can do so and retain their positions next season, according to Vavrinec. Vavrinec said no officials have yet told her they will not be working this fall.
No new field hockey officials are being trained in Connecticut this year because of the on-field training required in the sport, according to Vavrinec.
Vavrinec said that with some private and prep school leagues already canceling seasons and the uncertainty of middle school field hockey taking place, she is faced with a unique problem.
“For the first time in my career we may have too many officials,” Vavrinec said. “Right now, we’re waiting to see if there will be sports. We’re following the state guidelines, but we just don’t know what is going to happen.”