'I'm torn': IHSA officials have concerns about working during pandemic
Before the next football is spotted on a yard line, before the next jump ball gets lobbed, before the next coach wants a face-to-face explanation of a ruling on the field or court, high school sports officials have a question:
Will it be safe for them to return?
Men sporting black-and-white stripes might heed the advice of some fans and not quit their day job at Foot Locker, because they will need the work. For many gray-haired officials, there are many gray areas regarding their potential return.
While there may be no IHSA football, soccer and basketball games for a while, in some cases, there might be no referees to officiate them once they return. Consider that the average age of officials in most high school sports is mid-50s.
"I think you're going to see a crisis in the state of Illinois," said Mike Babicz, a veteran IHSA football and basketball official and board member of the Northern Officials Association.
There was a shortage of IHSA officials before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, considering many officials are in the high-risk age for contracting the coronavirus, there figures to be even fewer willing to step back on a field or court anytime soon, electronic whistle in hand. NOA's basketball and football memberships are both down significantly, Babicz notes, as officials wait to see what shakes out with the pandemic.
"So we knew had a shortage (of officials)," said Jerry Ming, who, like Babicz, has been officiating high school sports for nearly a half-century. "Yeah, we know we got a problem in lacrosse, we know we have a problem in soccer, and we've kind had a problem that was getting larger every day in football. But when you have a problem in basketball, that's no longer the canary in the coal mine. That's a full-blown, run-for-cover type of thing."
The concerns are many
Babicz, 63, says he would return to officiate football for his 46th season, but he --- and some peers, he notes --- have concerns. On Monday, the IHSA announced football will be moved to the spring. Will COVID-19 concerns be lessened by then?
"I've heard of a crew where the youngest guy is in his upper 50s and the rest of his crew is all in their 60s," Babicz said. "They have said they want to know from schools what are they going to do to protect them when they come to do a game. Are the coaches going to be required to wear a mask? Are the (football) coaches going to really be required to stay back in that coach's box, particularly so those officials working the wings are not having contact with those coaches?"
Then consider how often football officials touch the game ball.
"Somebody's going to touch the ball on every play, whether it's just the umpire or if it's a wing and the umpire, or it's the back judge and the umpire," said Babicz, acknowledging wearing gloves is an option for officials. "Are they going to modify that somehow?"
Ming, 67, says he plans to return to officiating basketball for what will be his 48th year. He's refereed volleyball for 20 years and has officiated collegiate basketball as well.
While it might not require them blowing a whistle, older officials have a tough call to make.
Said Ming: "A) Do we want to risk compromising our own (health) situation? and B) Do we take (the virus) back into our home where maybe our spouse or someone else in our family has some compromised immune situation? Do we want to expose our children and grandchildren? We got to think, not twice, but long-term about how everything we do is going to impact everything we do going forward."
High school hockey is another sport that has a "huge shortage" of referees, according to Ross Forman, who's been whistling penalties and breaking up skirmishes on the ice for the last 25 years, in addition to umpiring IHSA baseball games. He says while there are many referees who are in their 20s and 30s, there is also a "strong contingent" in the 50-plus age category.
Forman, 53, hasn't decided whether he will return to officiating hockey games.
"I'm torn," he said. "I don't know if I'm going to ref this season (because of COVID-19). I don't know how safe it's going to be. I'm not a germaphobe, but I don't necessarily want to be picking up pucks."
Consider that a hockey puck that has slid around the ice has potentially picked up players' sweat, snot, spit and blood. And then there's trying to stay 6 feet away (social-distancing protocol) from players during action and stoppages.
"There's no social-distancing on a faceoff," said Forman, who's uncertain if on-ice officials would have to wear a face covering below their required half-shield.
Keeping their hands off basketballs and volleyballs will be an equally messy situation for officials.
"Those volleyballs and basketballs are like round Petri dishes," Ming said. "If a player coughs into their hand and then they grab the volleyball and they smack it, it's a germ sphere going through the air back and forth, and it's touched by how many people? This is, honest to God, scary. Do I know of (officials) who aren't coming back? Yeah."
One thing certain is that all sports will be different --- and less social.
"We won't shake hands with the players," Ming said. "Maybe we'll fist-bump. Will we wear masks? You bet. I won't be hugging coaches that I've known for 30, 40 years."
By the time baseball comes around next spring, Forman, like everyone, is hopeful there will be a vaccine for the coronavirus and concerns will be less.
"I've certainly been thinking about hockey much more than I have about baseball, he said.
For all high school officials, no matter their age, there is much to think about.