Inside the NFL Officials' Quest to Create a Safe Workplace
As the clock is now well past the two-minute warning on the discussions between the NFL and NFL Players Association regarding the creation of a safe work environment amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, there is another group whose game-day safety must also be fit into whatever grand plan does take effect.
That would be the NFL officials, a group of 120 men and women plus 17 replay officials who are part of the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) headed by former referee Scott Green, the union’s executive director who retired after the 2013 season.
“We have some similarities with the players' concerns,” Green told Giants Country by phone, “but we do have some other issues that we’ve been talking to the league about.”
One of the most significant issues is the on-field protection of officials who routinely handle the game balls and who, on occasion, have to break up developing scrums and piles of players fighting for loose balls.
The handling of the ball seems simple enough. Green said that he was pretty sure the officials would be wearing gloves this year. However, he wasn't sure if there were plans to mandate that a fresh ball be put into play for every snap while used balls underwent sanitization.
An equally significant issue in terms of protective equipment is the use of masks. Green stressed that said nothing had been finalized regarding what kind of masks would be used or if there will be a combination of masks and face shields.
But even face shields could pose a challenge to officials, whose collective eyesight is often questioned by fans every time there appears to be a missed call.
Green said that the league has been in touch with various manufacturers and suppliers regarding different options, presumably those that would be fog-free and would otherwise not impair an official's vision.
Blowing the Whistle
Another challenge, as minuscule as it might sound, is the use of a whistle, which of course, officials use to control the game.
“Believe me when you blow a whistle, there's spittle coming out of it,” Green said. “So even if you have a face mask with a slight opening, you're still potentially spreading germs by blowing the whistle.”
The league has been looking into alternatives to a traditional whistle, including a handheld, battery-operated device that simulates a whistle's sound.
The use of such a device would undoubtedly take for some getting used to by the officials, some of whom run around with their whistle already in their mouths, some of whom grab at the device dangling from a lanyard around their necks, and some of whom wear a whistle like a ring.
“That would be different for us,” Green said of the handheld device. “But it certainly could resolve the problem of dealing with a face covering as far as blowing a whistle.”
The Challenges of Testing
While the NFL and NFLPA are pushing toward being able to test players multiple times during the week--the exact frequency and schedule are still being worked out--the officials face a more significant challenge.
Unlike the players, who are based in one city, each officiating crew is made up of members who hold other responsibilities during the week and who all don't reside in the same town, let alone the same geographic region of the country.
And depending on where an official has to travel for an assignment, they sometimes can't hit the road the Friday or Saturday before the game.
That calls into play the question of when—and where—officials could be tested. While the NFL is believed to be making arrangements with labs where the results of player, coach, and staff testing are available as quickly as possible, Green said he wasn’t sure how that would extend to the officials.
“Our situation is different because, during a weekend, we've usually got nine people from nine different places coming to a game site,” Green said.
“So the concern for us is testing to take place before leaving for your game site, hopefully out in your home city. We don't want folks showing up at a stadium, and if there's testing that will take place there and they test positive and are stuck there.”
And what happens if someone tests positive for the virus before departing on assignment or, worse yet, if they get a positive test once they are in the assigned city?
One possibility could be to have extra officials on stand-by. But ideally, if a positive COVID test is detected before the crew members arrive at their assigned city, some might be asked to work two games.
“Opening Day, you can double up and have somebody who works at the Thursday night opening game could also work a Sunday game, or—and this is a little rougher--somebody who works with Sunday game could work Monday game,” Green said.
If a larger number of officials test positive for the virus, there is a developmental squad of over 20 officials who have significant prior experience on the college level with some having worked in the XFL that could potentially be called upon in an emergency.
Along the lines of positive tests is the issue of opting out, which Green acknowledged is a real possibility for some NFLRA members (average age 53 years old, according to Green) who have pre-existing health concerns.
“Most everybody wants to work, but they want to work in an environment that is as safe as possible,” he said. “We all recognize that there will be a risk, but for some folks, maybe they won't clear that hurdle. So we are proposing an opt-out option for some of our officials.”
Green noted that if enough officials opt out of the 2020 season, the league, which hires and assigns the officials, could hire new officials to serve as backups or to fill any holes on the existing crews, or, as previously noted, the league could call upon members of the developmental squad to fill in for the season.
As such, it sounds as though any such opt-out policy would need to have a hard deadline to allow for the league to ensure it has a sufficient sized officiating workforce.
The Uncertainty of It All
There are plenty of scenarios between the NFLRA and NFL that also need to be resolved, including the pre-game locker room (Green said one possibility on the table is to have the officials dress at their hotels) and working virtually with teams during training camps.
Because of the unpredictability of the virus, the situation remains fluid and makes planning down to the most minor detail challenging.
But Green, who said he’s been in touch with leaders of other professional sports officiating groups that are preparing to start in the coming weeks, said it’s a precarious situation.
He admits that while the situation remains fluid if the basis for creating a safe workplace can be accomplished, he’s confident that the officials will be able to focus on doing their jobs.
“The three hours on the field for all of our folks is football, and you’re officiating football,” he said. "It might actually be a relief in some ways, because after trying to get there and going through tests and dealing with all of that, it may be refreshing actually to be out on a football field to work in a football game."