Nick Bryant, 62, is president of the Maine Association of Volleyball Officials and has been officiating high school matches for 15 years. He is unsure if he’ll officiate this fall because of the risks associated with the coronavirus outbreak. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Richard “Nick” Bryant has been officiating volleyball for the last 15 years, but he has doubts about whether he’ll return to the courts this fall should high school sports resume amid the coronavirus pandemic.

At 62, Bryant is in a higher-risk age category for COVID-19. And it’s not just his own health he has to consider – he lives with a family member who is a cancer survivor.

“I’ve got to be very cautious,” said Bryant, president of the Maine Association of Volleyball Officials. “I’m quite concerned about it.

“In fact, we’ve had a significant number of us who have said they do not want to officiate this year. For most of us, even those who are interested in officiating, there’s a concern that not only do we not want to put ourselves in danger, but we don’t want to bring it back to those we’re close to. I think many will make a final decision when we see what they’re doing (for safety protocols).”

As the Maine Principals’ Association and school officials work to establish safety protocols for a return to interscholastic athletics, there is a growing concern that the state could face a shortage of qualified officials because of the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, high school game officials in Maine and across the country were in short supply in many sports. In 2019, the MPA was concerned enough to run recruitment advertisements on radio and televised broadcasts of its tournament basketball games.

“It was a concern before,” said Gordie Salls, the Sanford High athletic director who works on the MPA’s Officials Fees committee. “There was a shortage in a lot of sports. This adds to it. There might be some people in high risk (groups) that may not choose to do it this year. That will be another issue.”

The median age of game officials in Maine is 54, according to Jeff Benson, who as commissioner of officials for the MPA oversees all officials in the state.

“Do I have concerns? Yeah,” said Benson, who is 63 and is a basketball official and baseball umpire. “I have concerns for everyone involved … We’re not getting younger. It is very true that in most of our sports we are an aging group and we’re not getting young people to come in when they’re done with playing days. But that’s a topic for another day. Our officials are older, so we’ve got to be concerned with that.”

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets between people in close proximity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Among adults, the risk for a severe infection increases with age. The older you are, the greater the risk of hospitalization.

“There are a number of people in the higher risk category who may opt out,” said Gary Stevens, the athletic director at Thornton Academy in Saco. “Others may not feel safe returning to athletics and being out in the field. So regardless of what we’re able to offer in terms of athletics, in terms of teams and sports, we are concerned.”

Most of the officials interviewed for this story indicated they would return to the field or the court, saying they would do whatever they needed to do to help make that happen – by wearing a mask, using an electronic whistle, coming to the game fully dressed, and socially distancing.

Kim Boothby-Downing has been officiating high school field hockey for nearly four decades. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think there are some things that will take getting used to,” said Kim Boothby-Downing, a field hockey official since 1982. “I think people are willing, as long as safeguards are in place, to return. I know a lot of field hockey officials also do lacrosse in the spring, and they were disappointed they weren’t able to ref then.”

“We have to be as flexible as possible,” said Bryant. “We want to make it a good experience. If we can figure a way to make it work safely for the kids, coaches and officials, you’re going to find officials say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this.'”

Benson recently sent out a survey to Maine game officials in four fall sports: football, soccer, field hockey and volleyball. From more than 700 officials, he received 442 replies, with 72 percent saying they would be willing to return to work this fall, 22 percent saying maybe, and 6 percent saying they would not return.

“Most do want to work,” said Benson.

Referee Magazine conducted a national poll in late May that was released in its latest issue. Nearly 20,000 officials responded – 131 from Maine – and 67.5 percent indicated they would “feel comfortable participating as an official from a health and safety perspective,” while 32.5 percent said they wouldn’t.

Age was certainly a factor in that poll: 81 percent of officials who are age 18-24 said they would be comfortable returning, while only 59 percent of those 65-and-older would feel comfortable.

But here in Maine, even older officials are willing to stay active.

“Honestly, I want to do what’s best for the kids,” said Sue Perkins, a 61-year-old soccer official who lives in Freeport. “I want to be there for them.”

Ray Petit, a 59-year-old football referee, added, “If it’s going to go, we want to go. We’re going to do what we can to make it happen.”

CONCERNING NUMBERS

The MPA has delayed the start of fall practices until Sept. 8, and in the coming weeks, it will ultimately decide whether to forge ahead with games or to cancel them, as happened in the spring. If high school sports resume this fall, many officials will have to decide what they’re going to do.

“There are a lot of concerns,” said Petit. “But, again, we’ve got to see what happens.”

Tom Ray is the president of the Western Maine Board of Approved Soccer Officials, and he’s worried. He oversees about 150 soccer officials. So far, only about 50 have paid their dues for the 2020 fall season. “That’s not normal,” he said.

“We’re concerned,” said Ray, who is 52 and still officiates. “We’re concerned because people are not sure of the season and maybe they don’t want to pay their dues if they don’t think they’re going to officiate. But part of it is we are an aging board. I’m afraid there are going to be many officials who may not want to expose themselves (to the coronavirus).”

Tom Ray, a high school soccer official and president of the Western Maine Board of Approved Soccer Officials, is worried about having enough game officials for the fall season. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Ray, whose job with The Hillman Group takes him throughout New England, plans on officiating this fall. “I’m OK with it,” he said. “As long as you are cautious, it’s going to be fine.”

But there are others who aren’t OK with it. Even in neighboring New Hampshire, the membership in the soccer officials board is down about 30 percent, according to Dennis Ordway, a New Hampshire soccer official.

“If we have 100 percent of the games that were played last year and only 70 percent of the officials, something is going to have to give,” said Ordway.

Ordway isn’t sure he’s going to officiate. While he isn’t concerned about his health, he has family members with underlying health conditions “and I can’t bring (the virus) home to them.”

Other sports in Maine are also reporting shortfalls in officials, though not as significant as soccer. Volleyball is down about 25 percent from a year ago. And with only about 50 volleyball officials in the state, that could lead to some gaps in coverage.

“I think there are some that will make a final decision when we see what (schools) are doing,” said Bryant.

Volleyball is different from other fall sports in that it is played indoors. Health officials have indicated that playing indoors increases exposure to respiratory droplets in the shared air space, thus increasing a possible exposure to the virus.

Jason Gentry, a 26-year-old volleyball official, said he has worked some tournaments and that it requires much more sanitizing. He brings his own sanitizers to the matches and cleans the balls often while offering hand sanitizer to the players.

“I would like fall sports to be as normal as possible,” he said. “I did purchase an electric whistle. I’m not a fan of it, but if that’s what I have to do, I will cooperate. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to knock out this virus.”

Sue Weatherbie assigns field hockey officials and said right now the numbers are in good shape. But, she added, “we are still an aging group of officials and if some choose not to officiate, we will definitely be short.”

Football is similarly stretched thin, with about 78 officials in southern Maine. “When we have full schedules, we’re shorthanded,” said Petit, who has been officiating football for 35 years and has seen his NCAA Division III season wiped out. “So I do worry about it. If this thing spikes, people may back out. If that happens, we may go from five-man to four-man crews. I hope we don’t have to go to three.”

Under the MPA’s basic fee structure for the 2020-21 school year, game officials for football and soccer will receive $78 per varsity game, $71 for field hockey and $68 for volleyball, plus mileage.

SAFETY MODIFICATIONS

Even though all counties in the state received a “green” designation from the Department of Education on Friday, providing the opportunity for in-person classroom instruction, safety protocols still have to be established in each school district.

Safety protocols are also needed for each sport. Current guidelines from the National Federation of State High School Associations and the MPA heavily stress social distancing and the wearing of face masks when not playing.

Game officials are waiting to see what that means for them. Will they be required to wear masks? Will they have to arrive at games fully dressed and not have locker room access? Will they be able to adequately distance themselves from players on the field? Will there be fans?

“There are a lot of concerns,” said Dennis Crowe, a longtime official who assigns officials in soccer and basketball in southern Maine. “I think we have to hear from the schools, what they are going to do. I think officials need to get their acts together, determine what we can do differently to protect ourselves and the kids. Let’s talk about changes in mechanics so we can be safe and not all get stricken from this.”

Officials seem amenable to whatever changes they need to make.

Already, pregame meetings with coaches and team captains have been changed, reducing the number of captains to one in most sports. There will be no hand shakes, either pregame or postgame.

And while officials would prefer to work without a face mask, most are willing to wear one if necessary.

In the MPA’s poll, Benson said 70 percent of respondents said they would wear a mask if required, with 30 percent saying no. In the Referee magazine national poll, 66 percent of respondents said they would wear a mask if required – but only 43 percent responded that it “was reasonable for an official to wear a mask and gloves while performing his/her duties.”

Perkins recently ordered a face mask from Under Armour – back-ordered until September – that is designed for sports. “It’s form-fitting to your face,” she said. “And protective and cooling. I hope to get it so I can train with it and get used to it.”

Wearing a mask would require the use of an electronic or hand-held whistle, although one manufacturer, Fox 40, has a mask that allows game officials to use a regular mouth whistle.

Most game officials interviewed for this story indicated they had already ordered electronic whistles in anticipation of having to wear a mask. In fact, Benson said 81 percent of the respondents in the MPA poll indicated they would use an electronic whistle.

“If I have to wear a mask on the field, I’ll do so,” said Steve Delcourt, a 49-year-old football referee from Old Orchard Beach. “It’ll be uncomfortable, but I’ll do it. This is what I like to do and whatever rules I have to do, I’ll do it.”

Delcourt recently purchased a face mask that has black and white stripes to match his jersey. Delcourt wears glasses and said the biggest issue with the face mask is that his glasses tend to fog up. He may experiment with wearing a plastic face shield.

Mary Parker, a field hockey official for 30 years, said, she would wear a mask – “It would be something new to get used to, but I’d be like everyone else,” she said – but realizes that not all officials might be able to wear one and be able to run up and down the field, especially those with respiratory ailments.

“I think wearing a mask would compound those issues,” she said. “I think it would be difficult.”

Bryant, the volleyball official, said he will wear a mask regardless of what is required. His concern is the electronic whistle – which has become so popular that they are on back-order until late-August or September. He has used them before at volleyball tournaments.

“Essentially, they’re useless in circumstances where you have a crowded gym or a lot going on,” he said. “They’re not loud enough. If you’re in an empty gym, with just the teams, they are better.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: