Referees are used to being left out.
In the COVID-19 pandemic they won’t get that luxury. Schools, school districts and the Georgia High School Association are wrestling with the mounting decision about what to do with the upcoming high school football season.
“We’re always left out,” Executive signing secretary for the Northeast Georgia Football Officials Association Bill Palmer said with a laugh. “That’s not new for us to be left out as far as all the media and all the protocols and all that.
It’s our requirement as an association to figure these things out and develop protocols to still allow us to be efficient in our jobs and not get sick.”
Per the latest statement on the GHSA’s website, things seem to be on track for the first official day of fall football practice on July 27.
The first allowed games are still set to start on August 21.
Cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the state and as they do things continue to get more complex and fluid.
According to the Georgia Department of Health.
Georgia reported 3,101 on June 26, 3,864 cases on June 29 and another 3,436 on June 30. July 10 saw 4,484 new cases of the virus in the state.
While the rest of the state thinks on the numbers and tries to settle on a plan the officials set to preside over the coming competitions have had to do some planning of their own.
The National Federation of State High School Associations has issued protocols to be followed and tweaked at the discretion of each official’s association.
The new protocols are as follows.
- Officials will not be responsible for enforcing social distancing (sidelines, stands, etc.). That is up to the teams and schools.
- Only the referee and umpire will meet with the head coaches prior to the game. Must stay six feet apart. No handshakes.
- Both teams will be allowed one captain (previously it was four) on the field for the coin toss.
- It is strongly encouraged for officials to bring their own beverage (water, Powerade, etc.) to each game. If a school official hands a beverage to a football official, he/she must be wearing gloves and it must be in a sealed bottle.
- Timeouts to be extended from 60 to 120 seconds to allow players to safely consume water.
- As of now, officials will not be required to wear a mask.
- Equipment companies do make a mask for officials. If you choose to purchase one, will also be required to purchase an electronic whistle.
- Officials may also wear gloves.
Palmer is 70-years-old and has been an official for 48 years. Palmer feels safe with the guidelines that have been presented so far. Palmer feels if the season started tomorrow he’d be out there ready to go, though he hasn’t received his electronic whistle due to the high demand nationwide.
“If you observe the protocols that you should observe, I don’t have any hesitation to get out there,” Palmer said. “I’m 70-years-old. I’m in one of those groups that is more susceptible. If we were going to play tomorrow, I’d be out there. I think the protocols that are in place are sufficient and if you’re smart about the way you go about your business, you’ll be just as safe out there as you would be anywhere else.”
Fellow official Keith Epps has a similar sentiment. Epps enjoys being an official. He has seen great players come through that state and move on to the college level and into the National Football League. If given the chance in the fall he’ll be on the field.
“I really love it,” Epps said. “When you go out and see kids grow up and go to the NFL. It means a lot, especially when you get them when they’re little and then boom they’re grown and in the NFL. On Fridays I’m so pumped up that at 12 I’m ready to cut off work and get ready to go referee.”
Despite the enthusiasm, the uncertainty has exasperated an ongoing issue in the state. Over the last few seasons the state has battled an official shortage.
The mixture of uncertainty of a season and the unknowns of COVID-19 as a disease has dropped registration by 25 percent from where it was a year ago according to Palmer.
Palmer admits he hasn’t been aggressively pushing people who may have been on the fence toward registering. Palmer does believe the shortage could play a factor when the season does begin.
“I think there will be some officials who will not take a chance because they might be in a compromising situation,” Palmer said. “There will be some officials who because of all the changes and how we have to do things differently that decide that now is the time to retire. We’ve only had one or two new officials and everyone else is shying away. Our numbers will be down. I don’t how that’s going to affect us.”