Safety First for Officials as Sports Reopen

While sports officials have not been formally designated “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, they certainly remain essential to all sports organizations now in the process of reorganizing to resume play. Of course, without sports officials, the games cannot be effectively played.

With that in mind, the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) has issued a 13-point plan focused on “Getting Back to Officiating Sensibly.” Most assuredly, other individual sports governing bodies and associations will each issue their own guidelines for officials, likely differing greatly dependent upon the sport and the level of play – professional, college and university, Olympic, high school and even the recreation leagues. Assuring compliance with the guidelines will be the responsibility of the governing bodies and the individual associations.

In instructing its 27,000 members, NASO President Barry Mano has stated what will be expected of all sports officials: “At the barest minimum, and for your personal safety, strictly adhering to CDC guidelines, OSHA guidelines where applicable and others which have been adopted by the communities in which we intend to officiate… Err on the side of safety!”

In many respects, sports officials and compliance officers have much in common. In order to be effective, both must be grounded in integrity and committed to maintaining high ethical standards. Players, coaches, fans, and game management personnel must, above all else, have trust that game officials will uphold the rules of the game and consistently do the right thing. Similarly, compliance officers must have the full confidence and support of employees throughout their organization, being fair and judicious in all they do.

Mano goes on to suggest that all officials should “take a common-sense approach to the restart of your officiating.” NASO’s common-sense approach to the resumption of the games has the following components (summarized and shortened for inclusion in this blog):

  1. All governing organizations/associations should adopt and publicize their provisions designed to enhance the safety and well-being of the officials;

  2. Those staging the games should assure that the playing areas have been properly cleaned in ways that assure officials are not turned into virus maintenance workers;

  3. Officials must be provided as equally safe of a working environment as that provided for players, coaches, fans and site management personnel;

  4. While some rules of the games may be adjusted due to the COVID-19 landscape, such adjustments should be made in a way that gives strong consideration to the officiating role;

  5. When officials accept assignments, their health and safety needs to come first;

  6. Those making officiating assignments need to understand that as with players and others, officials’ concerns for their health need to be respected;

  7. Officials feeling sick or even experiencing a low-grade fever should not officiate. Officials should never knowingly cause harm or impose a health risk to others;

  8. Officials should pay special attention to their personal hygiene – washing hands and sanitizing is essential while minimizing touching eyes, nose and mouth;

  9. Officials should get a mask and wear the mask;

  10. While there may be times when wearing a mask is simply not reasonable, know ahead of time what is expected of you;

  11. Wherever possible, before, during, or after a game, maintain social distancing;

  12. Officials need to be tested for the virus before working games and retested as the situation warrants; and

  13. When a COVID-19 vaccination becomes available, all officials should be vaccinated.

Sports organizations and associations are already beginning to develop plans, guidelines and their own standards for officials in the new era of the COVID-19 pandemic. NASO’s general guidance should aid them in that process. As with any initiative involving new rules, standards and expectations, the key to successful implementation will be compliance – especially at a time when the safety and health of officials is at stake. Remember – the games cannot be played without healthy officials, just like business can’t be conducted without healthy compliance officers.

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