Keeping football officials safe on the field amid the pandemic

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Ben Davis beats Lawrence North in week six to stay perfect on the season. (WTTV September 29, 2017)

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s week two of high school football in Indiana!

The IHSAA released guidelines earlier this year for schools to consider throughout the season with regards to COVID-19. These are not required for school districts to follow. The association is leaving it up to school officials to decide what works best for their community and for their schools.

In those guidelines, the IHSAA have given great consideration to how student-athletes can stay safe playing the game amid the pandemic, but it also found ways to keep those officiating the games healthy and safe.

“Our average age [of officials] in Indiana, is 51.1 years of age,” explained Assistant Commissioner Sandra Walter. “Our numbers are down. We’re right at 92% of where we were last year.”

Walter mentioned some officials decided to sit out this season out of concern of the virus.

“Every time they walk on campus, they’re walking into a situation where they don’t know exactly what they’re bringing back to their own home,” said Walter.

“Our officials are athletes themselves in yester-year and are just getting back to the game, and they know the age range that they’re in,” she said. “They know they’re at a higher risk and own some pre-existing conditions that might put them at a higher risk, but they’re being careful with themselves and with the student-athletes they’re working with in order to make sure that one, we can continue to play games, but honestly let’s keep everybody safe first. “

Walters also mentioned that the fitness training for officials is also very important.

“We come from all shapes and sizes and backgrounds, but we do talk about that constantly,” she explained. “If you’re asking an official to give 5 to 8, to 10 miles in the center for a soccer game, or 3 to 4 miles with a basketball or football game with a referee, then their level of fitness has got to be forefront with them as they work through and get ready for competitions as well.”

There are several considerations in the guidelines that help ensure the safety of referees during football games. One of those is the use of an electric whistle instead of a traditional one.

“I’ve told football and soccer than an air horn might be what you need,” mentioned Walter. “Anything that’s not going to require taking that in and out of your mouth in that potential risk there.”

A big thing of concern is face coverings for officials. While the IHSAA does not necessarily recommend referees wear masks at all times, they do want them to have one they can easily pull up or put on when they interact with others.

During week one of football, the association mentioned there were small concerns that popped up. One of them was what happens when a player’s mask or face covering falls on the field? Who picks it up?

“In talking to the athletic trainer, the healthcare professional, they’re typically gloved or access quickly to gloves, to manage that,” explained Walter. “It seems like a small thing but what’s transmitted if [someone picks it up?] All of those little things that could be detrimental to the health and safety of the official or the student-athlete, or both, have to be thought through. And you don’t really realize those things until you’re in it.”

With all the changes, considerations, and adjustments that need to be made this year, the IHSAA points out everyone has been working together to ensure the season goes as smoothly as possible.

“This whole in it together concept has really resonated with our officials and our coaches,” explained Walter. “I tell them—you’re all a teacher whether by trade or not when you’re on the field or the court, and so far we’ve had a nice representation of let’s work together. Let’s make sure we get these kids back into a structured, supervised environment, and lastly, we’ll play a few games.”

Walter also mentioned one of the big lessons in fall sports this season is patience.

“You’re gonna see football programs, and you’ve heard of them, who are not playing on Friday night because they’ve quarantined kids where their numbers don’t support a competition,” explained Walter. “That’s going to happen all the way through, and then when we get into tournament, we’re going to have to expect some issues there. But 90% or more of our football teams are playing on Friday nights.”

Walters feels that the association is taking care of student-athletes throughout the week, ensuring they are in a safe and healthy environment. And that it is also providing the same considerations for officials.

Going into week two, the IHSAA said one of their concerns is looking forward to Labor Day weekend and how everyone will handle that.

The association reminds and encourages everyone across the board to keep themselves safe, so they can continue to play the game of football.

If you would like to become an IHSAA official, click here

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