The Effects of Covid-19 on Sports Officials yellow cardThe effects of Covid-19 on Sports Officials has been widely ignored by most main stream sports media. Like players and fans, referees and umpires of all stripes have also been deprived of their favorite pastimes. The rub here is that sports officials have also lost their income.

Most people will automatically assume that we are talking about the officials we see on the television. The favorite sport of your home country, often your national sport, has referees and umpires that everyone can recognize. Some countries have many different sports with huge followings. They all have a top tier of officials that are well known to the fans. These leaders in the world of officiating are definitely included in this discussion. It is important to note however, that they are by far the minority in the bigger picture of sports officiating.

Who is effected?

For every referee or umpire you see working games on television, there are thousands of unsung and unknown officials. They are all working hard to provide us and our kids with the opportunity to play our favorite sports. These men and women are responsible for making the calls in every village, town and city in the world. It is these people who are going unnoticed during this global pandemic pause. As a result, this is where the effects of Covid-19 on sports officials is really hitting home.

Collectively, there are millions of sports officials. They come from all walks of life in every corner of the world. Students looking to earn some spending money. Retired sports lovers looking to supplement pensions. Some little player’s Mom or Dad filling in when there is an emergency. There are many who are phenomenal athletes with World Cups and Olympics in their future. They walk in our community, attend our parent meetings down at the school and care about all of the same things everyone else does. They are our families, our friends and our neighbors, and they are critical to our local sports programs. Many are front line workers during this crisis and use their leaderships skills learned from officiating to save lives.

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Who is helping?

There have been a few attempts by some sports associations to help out their officials during this unprecedented time. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many when we consider how many sports and leagues there are. This is understandable because most local associations are volunteer run and don’t generally carry large bank accounts. This is not an article to criticize our volunteers, and I certainly understand the situation that all of our leagues are in. I am merely pointing out what has gone largely unrecognized. If there is an opportunity for your local association to reach out to officials in some way, I am sure it would be greatly appreciated.

Probably the most touching story I have seen about associations helping their officials was from Uganda. The Uganda Football Referees Association, or UFRA, gave 5 kilograms of posho to each of their 11 referees and 3 assessors. I am not really sure what posho is, but it sounds like food to me, and the referees are thankful. It may not sound like much to some, but to me, this gesture alone reaffirms the good in the world.

Online Training

It has been fascinating to watch the explosion of online training sessions for sports officials. Many of the top referees and umpires in all sports have been working hard to pass on their knowledge and experience during the 2020 Lockdown. They have been giving more interviews for podcasts and Youtube channels and appearing at quiz nights for local leagues. Many associations have stepped up their officiating training with online programs and have regular Zoom meetings. It will be interesting to see how this time affects future games and the skill levels of everyone concerned.

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What Happens Now?

The effects of Covid-19 on sports officials are going to vary across each sport, each country and each region. Some sports are talking about having smaller officiating crews to cut down the number of people on the playing surface. Some want to do it for financial reasons. There is discussion in Australia about the National Rugby League plans to cut back from two referees to one. It is not exactly clear how this one is going to work out. The NRL won’t be the only league that struggles to find a way to restart safely and survive.

Rule Changes

Rule changes regarding distancing will happen across the board. Sports that are reluctant to implement their own rules will have them imposed by health authorities. Many of these rule changes will be driven by the officials themselves. As volunteers, families, friends and neighbors, they will work to protect their children and the players, as well as themselves.

Many leagues will have isolation procedures and corona testing protocols.

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Masks are about to become very common fashion wear for referees and umpires. There are already some companies making striped masks using the materials normally used for referee jerseys. I would imagine that masks made from jerseys of all colors will become standard procedure for many officials. Watch for unique creations expressing personality and spirit as some playful characters use this opportunity to explore boundaries.

An obvious glitch in the whole mask plan is the whistle. Whistle blowers will have to come up with something that works with a mask. I am not sure what that something will be, but electronic whistles and bluetooth buzzers will likely be a part of the discussion.

Technology and Innovation

There has been a lot of talk on social media about the possibility of an electronic umpire for baseball. Most of the buzz has been muddled by people who think that human umpires will be replaced. This is not true. The electronic systems being researched and considered will be used for calling balls and strikes only. Human umpires will still be there to make the call at the plate. I would expect to see this technology in the minor leagues and college levels long before it ever makes it to the big leagues. For right now though, everything is up for discussion, and this is one of the topics.

Keep an eye open for new ideas. Using technology to solve problems is pretty much what we do. I can’t honestly predict where the imaginations of people will take us, but I do predict that it will be pretty amazing.

Looking Ahead

The future of all sports, at every level, is about to look very different from the one we were all expecting. The effects of Covid-19 on sports officials, players and fans are far reaching. The world is changing quickly and plans will be made and remade. Often. The one constant in these plans is people. Above all, how we treat each other will play a vital role in how we rebuild.

There are many unsung heroes that go unnoticed as we tackle our ‘normal’ lives. Store clerks, office assistants, janitors and cleaning ladies are but a few. Like them, referees and umpires are now even more crucial than ever. With the historical abuses suffered at the hands of players, coaches, fans and most especially the little league parents, sports officials have already been difficult to recruit, train and retain. Asking them to suffer through this abuse as well as potentially risk their lives for the sake of our pleasure, might be a little bit much to ask. Therefore, this will have to change.

Be Kind and Stay Safe

Associations and leagues will have to take a good hard look at their internal programs if they are going to have enough officials to fulfill all of their games in the coming years. Ensuring safety, paying fairly and caring deeply about all participants as human beings will be the surest way for all of our favorite games to survive this spot of trouble we have gotten ourselves into. In these uncertain times, we can be sure that referees and umpires will have a new look and a new book, and our games can’t be played without them. I always like to say: Without Officials, it is Just a Practice!. I think we can add that Officials are an Essential Service.

Jim Clarke
The Effects of Covid-19 on Sports Officials
Please Stay Safe and Be Well!