Referees face uncertain future during COVID-19 pandemic

The fate of upcoming sports seasons is looking grim, as high school teams learn they likely won’t play until 2021.

The news impacts athletes as well as referees.

“I don’t think we’ll be refereeing much soccer at all in 2020,” said Will Niccolls, Washington soccer referee.

The same can be said for almost every sport this fall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said games put people at a higher risk to catch COVID-19, which is why the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association postponed all high school sports until January.

“Part of our jobs as referees is ensuring the safety of all participants and, if the environment is not safe to participate, we certainly can’t allow a game to continue,” said Niccolls.

Niccolls referees soccer and basketball, and he's been doing so for almost 30 years.

“This should be my thirtieth season this fall. We’ll see if I get to count it as my thirtieth, I may be stuck at 29 for a while,” he said.

Normally at this time of year, he's on the field refereeing games and tournaments .

As a referee, he comes into contact with a lot of people. He agrees the risk is too high to start the season right now, especially after the sports community lost two officials to COVID-19.

“I don’t have a lot of friends who know people who’ve lost their life through COVID-19, and, in our officiating community there are two folks right there, and I think many of us are very cautious and we don’t want to put ourselves at risk,” said Niccolls.

In a national survey of 20,000 officials, nearly 33% said they wouldn't feel comfortable officiating games. The Washington Officials Association said the statistic is consistent locally as well.

“We have a lot of officials that fit into that vulnerable population that I don’t think will be back out officiating right away until COVID-19 is less prevalent in the community,” said Richard Meeks, Executive Director of the South King County Referee Association.

However, there are others who are eager to get back on the field.

“There’s no way for us to recover the financial part of what we do,” said Meeks. “There’s a lot of us that are ready to get back out there and be a part of the sport we love.”

According to the Washington Officials Association, when sports resume, safety measures taken by officials, such as masks and social distancing, will vary from sport to sport. The WOA will follow what health officials recommend at the time.