It happens every fall as sure as the leaves change: Ron Winchester suits up in his back-and-whites each weekend to patrol Long Island’s high school football fields as a referee.
With the Catholic High School Football League’s 2020 season, Winchester’s tenure as an official grew to 40 years.
But because of the coronavirus pandemic, it almost didn’t.
Winchester initially planned to opt out of officiating for this season. Though fit, he is considered to be in a vulnerable population because of his age, and in no way did he want COVID-19 visited on him or his family. But when the CHSFL opted for a low-contact version of 7-on-7 — similar to touch football and involving no tackling — Winchester opted in.
"In a regular football season with pulling kids out of a pile? I didn’t think I was in for that," said Winchester, a past president of the Long Island Association of Football Officials. "In this [version], the risks related to the transmission are almost completely [negated]. I wanted to officiate and this was safer."
Officials are the "other team'' on the field at every high school sporting event. When the Catholic schools declared their intention to have a fall sports season, the student-athletes and their families weren’t the only ones with a tough decision to make about participating.
CHSFL assigner Jimmy Graham and CHSAA boys and girls soccer assigner Coz DeLillo reached out to their pools of officials to see who was comfortable working games during the pandemic.
Graham estimated that about 30% of his officials chose to opt out for this season. DeLillo gauged that number at about 15%.
"There are a lot of older people who officiate high school games, many who have been involved in school sports all their lives," DeLillo said. "Like any group, some have what are considered underlying health issues. We made it clear any decision regarding this season would not have an impact on officiating next season."
Both said officials who might be described as being in a "vulnerable population" expressed concerns about masks, contact with players and whether they would have to enforce health protocols.
"I’d been eager to officiate soccer and then spring sports got canceled," said girls soccer official Marty Gately, who opted out for 2020. "Then I looked at it and considered the possible impact on my family and we talked about it. We didn’t want the possible exposure. You have to be near the play and have the right angles to officiate, and that means being near people."
The CHSFL 7-on-7 football games included no line play, no rushing plays and no pass rush. The contests required three officials instead of the five or six needed for the traditional 11-on-11 game with tackling. And Graham’s pool of available officials now included those who typically work public school games, so numbers were no issue.
"For the most part, the [officials] were just like the kids: They wanted to get out and start doing the games," Graham said. "The money is not enough to be the driving factor. They have a passion to do things for our kids."
"I’ve been doing soccer games for 51 years and I don’t want to stop," said Joe Fasano, 78, who has officiated this season. "I decided to do it because I felt like we could social distance and the league took things seriously regarding wearing masks. Maybe it’s silly, but I haven’t felt vulnerable."
By state mandate, game officials have no responsibility for enforcing health protocols. They are instructed not to intervene when there is a dispute between players. The CHSFL allowed a coach to stand on the field but well behind the line of scrimmage to step in if something happened between the teams.
"Everyone seems to understand the dangers," Graham said. "Things like that haven’t happened.''
"We’ve been happy that no one has been crazy competitive to the point of there being a scuffle or fight," DeLillo said.
Officials’ routines have been modified during the pandemic. They arrive at a contest dressed to officiate. They are to wear a mask at all times (except when blowing a whistle). They get temperature checks and often fill out health questionnaires before entering a facility. Everyone is masked for coin tosses and pregame meetings.
DeLillo said the rigorous protocols have made even some of his officials in their 70s willing to work. "I try to put everyone in the situations and areas where they want to be," he said.
"Catholic schools have done a very good job to make sure everyone is safe at a game," Graham said. "They’ve done something they should be proud of."