Michigan High School Referees Face Challenges Working Fall Sports Under COVID-19 Rules

Nov 17, 2020

The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) needs to attract more people to become referees, but the pandemic has thinned the ranks.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – COVID-19 has limited the number of spectators, mandated masks and stripped away the pageantry of high school sports in Michigan. But the players and fans are not the only one’s following health guidelines this season.

While Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) officials set and enforce the rules of the games, but due to COVID-19, they are the ones following guidelines as well. 

MHSAA officials working a Holland Christian / Zeeland West baseball game.
Credit Flickr / Creative Commons

Throughout the fall seasons, MHSAA officials follow guidelines from the governor’s office, MHSAA and the Michigan Health and Human Services department.

Eric Bach, a Michigan State senior, has officiated MHSAA football and basketball for 10 years. He said that although conditions are different, his job is still the same.

“I’ve felt safe and once the game starts, I’m not even really thinking about the COVID stuff,” he said. “Other than pulling my mask up when I need to and not touching the ball, that’s just now part of my routine.”

On the football field, the biggest changes officials have made are wearing masks and how the football is moved around the field. According to the MHSAA Officials considerations for football, the offensive team is responsible for retrieving and handling footballs. An incomplete pass must be retrieved by the receiver and returned to the center.

Bach, 22, did not have any hesitation deciding to officiate this season. He takes COVID-19 seriously and hopes not to contract the virus, but the income that he receives from officiating is not something he overlooks.

Bach said he is now used to the atmosphere as the season has gone on, but his initial experiences were unlike anything he had experienced in officiating.

“It was just eerie, some big play happens, normally you’re used to hearing the band and all these people making a lot of noise,” he said. “We’re happy to be out there, happy they get to play high school football, but it’s certainly not the same.”

MHSAA Official Shortage

The MHSAA faced an officials’ shortage before COVID-19. The virus hasn’t solved that growing problem, according to MHSAA assistant director Brent Rice.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decrease,” Rice said. “We’re about down 25 percent from where we were last year.”

The MHSAA currently has around 7,000 officials across all sports compared to 9,200 in 2019.

There has been a dramatic drop in the number of officials for winter sports. The MHSAA reports a 39 percent decrease in hockey officials and a 28 percent decrease in wrestling.

To work around these shortages, the MHSAA has either moved games to different dates or played the games with fewer officials.

Rice said the MHSAA has two main reasons for officials opting out this year: officials taking abundance of precaution to protect older family members or at risk children. The other reason is mask wearing.

“We’ve had a number of officials say. . . when it first came out it [masks] was mandated, ‘I’m not registering,’” he said.

Outdoor officials have to wear masks at all times except when they are actively officiating, while indoor officials are required to wear masks at all times unless they have a medical exception. Even with the exceptions and rules regarding masks, some officials have said it’s too much of a hassle.

Because of COVID-19, the MHSAA has had to examine how recruitment and retention of officials will be refined for the future.

“A lot of the officials that left were more of our older demographic,” Rice said. “We kind of realized if they were to all leave for some reason similar to this in the future or just decide they weren’t going to officiate anymore we would be in trouble.”

In order to grow the future of MHSAA officiating, the organization turned to the Legacy Program offered by the MHSAA.

The Legacy program allows high school students the opportunity to officiate games at any sub-varsity level. The MHSAA is creating a curriculum that can be brought into schools in a new course.

Bach, a 2017 graduate of Coldwater High School, started officiating through the Legacy program. He estimates that he worked 80 high school basketball games in his last two years of high school.

“The earlier we get them started. . .the more likely they’ll stick with it after high school and beyond,” Rice said.