Blowing the Whistle on Referee Safety

Blowing the Whistle on Referee Safety

Examining the pandemic’s impact on the people in stripes

March 8, 2021 | Published by O2

Cardboard cut-outs in place of fans. DJs piping crowd noises into stadiums. Referees  and players wearing masks. This past year has changed the sporting world as we know it. For much of the past 12 months, many sports have either been shut down completely or look vastly different. The landscape for athletes — both amateur and professional — has changed dramatically; social distancing and mask wearing have become commonplace, while rapid testing for professional athletes is as normal as heading to practice. The game has changed for fans as well, with most of us forced to stay at home in order to watch the sports we love.

One group that’s often forgotten about is referees — and the pandemic is no exception. Despite their black and white striped shirts referees, by their nature, try hard not to stand out. It’s their job to make sure a game is played smoothly while they go unnoticed; a part of the game, of course, but a passive one. This means that when they do receive attention, it’s often negative.

Referees have a tough job as it is without a global pandemic to worry about. With parents, fans, and players alike screaming and shouting at them it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to subject themselves to that kind of abuse. But if you ask any referee why they do what they do, they’ll tell you it’s their passion and love of sport that drives them.

While athlete and spectator safety has been at the forefront of the conversation around a return to sports, officials and referees are no less important. Without them, we simply couldn’t play or watch our favourite sports. From peewee hockey to the NFL, we need referees.

So what has the pandemic been like for officials, and what steps are being taken to ensure their safety?

Referee shortages and other challenges

With the exception of elite-level referees, many semi-professional and amateur officials work on a volunteer basis. Given the impact of the pandemic, it’s not surprising that some of them preferred not to return to their roles. In a survey conducted in May of 2020 alongside Referee Magazine, the National Association of Sporting Officials reported that over one third (32.5%) of high school officials in the United States didn’t feel comfortable officiating during the pandemic. The survey broke down further along age demographics, with around 40 percent of those 65 and older saying they didn’t feel comfortable returning, while only 19 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds said the same.

This survey turned out to be a strong indicator of what was to come. Referee shortages have been occurring all across North America over the past few months. With states and provinces beginning to allow a return to sport, many regions are struggling to find enough referees to officiate games. In fact, finding enough referees has become one of the primary challenges in a return to play for many high school sports leagues.

For those that have decided to pick up their whistle again, they face some particularly unique challenges that only a global pandemic can bring. For starters, the referees that have decided to continue have been stretched thin, officiating more games than ever. Some referees are also being asked to enforce mask mandates for athletes, while having to adhere to COVID protocols themselves. In some soccer leagues, referees are even being asked to remind players to remain socially distant during celebrations. 

The shutdown in amateur sports has also had a financial impact for many officials, since not all referees operate on a volunteer basis. Despite the return to action for some high school leagues, many sports have and will continue to remain sidelined for months, leaving many refs out of work or facing drastic pay cuts.

Then there’s the question of in-game safety. Depending on the sport, referees may come into contact with dozens of players throughout just a single match. Take basketball for example, where officials physically insert themselves between players throughout the game; or rugby, where officials kneel down into a scrum of players to see the ball. It’s vital that we find new and innovative ways to maintain the safety of our officials.

Keeping our officials safe

While much of the focus around a safe return to sport has been on players and fans, referees are just as important and require the same considerations. So what can be done to keep referees safe?

One way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is through stringent testing protocols. Leagues across the continent – from College sports to the NBA – have introduced daily rapid testing for players, coaches, and referees alike. These testing protocols aim to prevent the virus from ever entering the court or the arena. Of course, this kind of regime is only available to higher level competitions and can’t be relied upon for high school and amateur sports.

Other, more innovative techniques have been introduced by the NBA that could be exported to other leagues at all levels. We don’t need to go into detail for you to imagine that a referee’s whistle is a major potential source of airborne particles. With that in mind, last summer the league introduced a plastic cover to prevent a referee’s spittle from spraying everywhere.

In fact, one Canadian company has gone one step further. Fox 40, one of the world’s foremost whistle companies, and the creator of the pealess whistle, has created an electronic whistle which produces the same 96 to 120 decibel sound as a regular whistle. With the push of a button, referees can avoid putting their hand near their mouth, preventing a possible mode of transmission. Unsurprisingly, their sales have skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic, with leagues all over the world scrambling to find ways to increase safety measures for officials and players.

Masking up is the way forward

It might come as no surprise to you that we’re big supporters of masking when it comes to respiratory protection in sport. The NFL has taken the lead on this when it comes to professional sports, with officials expected to wear masks during games. The league has even moved to penalize coaches who approach officials without a mask.

Some high school sports leagues have also required their officials to wear masks during gameplay to protect athletes and officials from spreading COVID-19. College sports have begun to follow suit as well, with College football in the US adopting electronic whistles and masks for officials.

Besides the impact of a global pandemic, air pollution is another major problem facing professional sports. Officials and referees are no exception to this rule. Masking is one of the best ways forward if we want to protect the health of our athletes and officials. With the innovation of electronic whistles, performance-focused masks and respirators may very well be the way forward to protect their health.


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