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Pro Sports Delay Seasons

Professional leagues such as the NBA, NHL and MLS put the remainder of their 2019-20 seasons on hold in March when the pandemic struck. MLB shut down spring training as well. But the pandemic didn’t result in cancellations at the highest levels.

  • The NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLS returned to play through a “bubble” approach for players, coaches and referees.
  • Both MLB and the NFL worked out agreements with the officials’ unions allowing some officials to opt out of the 2020 seasons. While the leagues did not require participants to isolate in a “bubble,” frequent testing was done and schedules were impacted. MLB umpires and NFL officials were required to wear masks.

Youth Impacted, Some Find a Way to Play

Just like other levels, youth officials felt the burden of canceled games and tournaments early in 2020.

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  • On April 30, Little League International canceled the 2020 World Series and Regionals. Umpires selected for the postseason got their invitations extended to the 2021 season.
  • Local youth baseball and softball — along with other non-contact sports — resumed in many states in late May and early June, but often with modifications to playing rules.

NCAA Cancels Championships but sports return for some in fall

NCAA men’s and women’s basketball postseasons were halted at the start of the pandemic. As a result, hundreds of officials missed working the Big Dance. The NCAA also canceled spring championships, including both College World Series. Fall saw play resume for some but not all.

  • On Aug. 5, the NCAA announced the cancellation of D-II and D-III fall championships. In addition, most D-II and D-III conferences announced they would not compete in fall sports.
  • The Power 5 conferences decided to play sports in the fall, but many other D-I conferences did not. Most officials were required to wear masks and/or used electronic whistles.

Manufacturers Offer COVID Products

Officiating equipment retailers stepped up to meet the needs of officials working during a pandemic.

The Fox 40 electronic whistle became a hot commodity with officials. Both Fox 40 and The Whistle Shield also developed pouch/cap products to be used in conjunction with traditional whistles.

Fox 40 is also selling a whistle mask and gaiter to allow officials to comply with mask mandates while keeping the traditional whistle in position. In addition, Cliff Keen and Smitty Officials Apparel found ways to get masks into the marketplace to meet needs of officials.

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High School Sports Adjust to STOPPAGES, Delays and NEW Play

When the pandemic hit in March, governors closed schools, canceling high school events and in some cases shutting down state tournaments in the middle of the action. Spring brought more cancellations before some play resumed during the summer.

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  • All 50 states (and D.C.) canceled 2020 spring sports championships. Because of lost seasons, the NFHS did not publish new rules for 2021 in baseball, softball, track and field, and girls’ and boys’ lacrosse.
  • Iowa was the first state to resume sanctioned high school play with summer baseball and softball on June 15. Umpires were asked to social distance and avoid touching the ball and player equipment.
  • In the fall, 14 high school associations proceeded with football without any changes to the season. Thirty-one associations modified seasons; six opted for no fall competition. Officials navigated seasons that were disrupted by positive tests. Some states reported challenges having enough officials, so games were scheduled on non-traditional days. Impacts were also felt in volleyball and soccer.

NASO Postpones Alabama Summit, offers Summit @ Home

NASO, in consultation with the Alabama High School Athletic Association, postponed the 2020 Sports Officiating Summit that was scheduled to be held in July in Montgomery, Ala. The national Summit and the accompanying statewide “Officiate Alabama Day” event were postponed until July 27-29, 2025, since Summit sites for 2021-24 were already determined.

Since a traditional in-person Summit was not possible, NASO created a virtual Summit@Home that launched in August and featured an impressive educational program. Officiating’s virtual event of the year included 70-plus sessions that featured both high-level officials and industry leaders on a variety of topics.

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ArbiterSports, a leader in online officiating management, fell victim to data theft involving the personal information of sports officials, according to reports and notices filed with Iowa and California state attorney generals in August 2020. Website Zdnet.com reported 540,000 officials were impacted. Two class action lawsuits were filed as a result of the breach (see “The News,” pg. 10).

In the notices, ArbiterSports said it “detected unauthorized access to certain devices in its network and an attempt to encrypt its systems.” It “immediately took measures to stop the access, launched an investigation, and a security firm was engaged.”

The file “supports ArbiterGame, ArbiterOne and ArbiterWorks and contained information about our users, including account username and password, name, address, date of birth, email address, and Social Security number.” The passwords and Social Security numbers were encrypted, but the hacker was able to decrypt the data and demanded payment in exchange for deleting the files that were obtained, according to the notices. ArbiterSports “reached an agreement” for the hacker to delete the files, the notices stated.

The notices filed with the attorney generals offered free enrollment in a credit monitoring and identity protection service for one year, to those affected by the breach.

“We have implemented additional measures and changes to enhance the security of our network,” the ArbiterSports data breach notice said. “We also notified law enforcement and are supporting their investigation.”

In February, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed by NCAA D-I men’s basketball referee John Higgins against a Kentucky radio station over harassment and threats.

In October 2017, Higgins sued Kentucky Sports Radio and radio personalities Matthew Jones and Drew Franklin claiming that in April 2017, soon after he worked the Elite Eight game between Kentucky and North Carolina, they encouraged fans to harass him and leave inaccurate, bad online reviews on his roofing business.

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In writing the opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Judge Stuart Sutton acknowledged Higgins suffered harm but the radio station was not liable for damages due to First Amendment protections.

Higgins spent close to $200,000 out of his own pocket to take a stand and pursue the case.

Hawaii became the 22nd state to pass an assault and/or harassment law protecting sports officials when Gov. David Ige signed Senate Bill 2612 into law on Sept. 15. The new legislation, introduced by Hawaii State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, allows courts to prohibit individuals convicted of assaulting or threatening officials from attending any similar sports events for a period of up to a year from the date of sentencing, or for life for a second or subsequent offense.

The legislation, amended from its original form, which called for establishing the offenses of assault against a sports official in the first, second and third degrees, and the offense of terroristic threats against a sports official, was supported by various organizations, including the Hawaii High School Athletic Association (HHSAA).

“It is a good first step,” HHSAA Executive Director Christopher Chun said of the new law. “I am glad that the legislature recognized the need to protect our high school officials, because without them, we would not have high school sports in Hawaii.”

MLB umpire Joe West won his defamation lawsuit in July against analyst and former MLB catcher Paul Lo Duca for false comments on an April 2019 podcast on The Action Network. The court ruled by a default judgment as Lo Duca did not respond to the lawsuit. A few months earlier in February, West also settled his lawsuit against The Action Network over the comments.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2019 after Lo Duca alleged in the podcast that former closer Billy Wagner loaned West a 1957 Chevrolet in exchange for a favorable strike zone. Lo Duca said it took place during a game against the Phillies in 2006 or 2007, when he was catching for Mets closer Wagner and West was the plate umpire. Lo Duca also claimed that of the 15 games from which he’d been ejected in his career, West ejected him eight or nine times. West’s lawsuit, however, pointed out West ejected Lo Duca only once and he never served as plate umpire for any game Wagner pitched while Lo Duca was on the Mets.

A Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) basketball official, concerned for his safety amid poor sportsmanship, captured headlines when he left the court mid-game and did not return. It happened during the third quarter of a boys’ game between Newton and Salina Central high schools on Feb. 24. The game was completed by the two remaining officials.

During the game, the Newton team received six technical fouls, the head coach was ejected and a spectator was removed for coming onto the court. Video showed that late in the third quarter, an official called a technical foul on a Newton player who chest-bumped a Central player. The Newton player then approached the referee, who headed to the scorer’s table. Instead of reporting the foul, he left the court without consulting with his partners. All the while, the parents and spectators in the stands berated the officials. As the referee started to leave, a spectator came onto the court and yelled at the officials.

KWCH-TV reported that Newton assistant principal and athletic director Brian Becker emailed the superintendent that parents and spectators were behaving badly throughout the first half. He said he had never seen that level of behavior from a crowd in his 20-year career. Additional law enforcement, including a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper, was called in for the second half. After the game, the referees were given escorts out of the school.

Esfandiar “Esse” Baharmast, the first American to referee two matches in a World Cup, added Werner Fricker Builder Award recipient to his resume in 2020. He received U.S. Soccer’s highest honor Feb. 15 at the U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

The award is named after late U.S. Soccer President Werner J. Fricker, who was honored posthumously with the inaugural award in 2002. It recognizes an individual or individuals who dedicate at least 20 years of service to the sport, working to establish a lasting legacy in the history and structure of soccer in the United States. The award recognizes those who have developed programs that will outlast their own involvement in the sport.

“To be mentioned in the same breath as the previous recipients who are pillars of the game and have done so much for the game is both humbling and inspiring at the same time,” Baharmast said. “I am humbled and honored to be standing alongside of these great ambassadors of our game.”

After retiring from officiating in 1998, Baharmast became the director of officials for U.S. Soccer, and has been a member of the CONCACAF Referees Committee since 2003. He has served as a FIFA instructor, assessor and mentor at the youth and senior levels, including at every men’s and women’s World Cup since 2006. He is also the director of referees for the Colorado Soccer Association.

The road to the job of CFO national coordinator of football officials once again went through the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Steve Shaw, previously the SEC and Sun Belt Conference coordinator of football officials and a former SEC referee, assumed the role of national coordinator in March 2020. Shaw replaced Rogers Redding, who also was the SEC coordinator before taking the CFO position nine years ago.

Shaw continues to serve as the secretary-rules editor of the NCAA Football Rules Committee. He worked as a referee for 15 years in the SEC, earning 14 postseason assignments, including two national championships.

For the first time in its history, the Division III Commissioners Association (DIIICA) funded a comprehensive study to look at the issues resulting in a shortage of college sports officials. Diversifying the pools of officials, education of officials and addressing sportsmanship issues were among the recommendations in an assessment announced in September. They will be addressed in a five-year strategic plan by DIIICA.

The study was produced in conjunction with the Reno, Nev.-based consulting firm The PICTOR Group and came after a year-long survey of more than 15,000 individuals focused on recruiting, retention, organizational challenges and strategic collaboration.

Initially, the study was limited to 13 D-III sports, but the NCAA requested it be expanded and two more sports were added, and Divisions I and II were included.

The NFL made some hires in 2020 to expand its officiating department. The league announced in May that longtime referee Walt Anderson and former NFL coach Perry Fewell would join the NFL officiating department.

Anderson, after serving as an NFL official for the past 24 years, 17 of those as a referee, retired from the field and was named senior vice president of officiating training and development. Anderson oversees the game officials, including developing and implementing an enhanced training and performance evaluation system to prepare and evaluate them. He also manages the officiating position coaches and coordinators. Anderson worked Super Bowls XXXV in 2001 and XLV in 2011 and was part of the NFL’s full-time officiating program before it was abandoned.

Fewell was named the senior vice president of officiating administration to oversee the day-to-day operations of the officiating department, including outreach to the league’s head coaches and general managers, compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association, and as a liaison to the NCAA on officiating-related matters. Fewell most recently served as the interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2019.

Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron remains in his position and continues to oversee the league’s replay department. Riveron and the new officiating administrators report to Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president.

USSF referee Damir Culum was among those named as a defendant in a lawsuit by a player who was allegedly assaulted during an adult league soccer game in Queens County, N.Y. In a complaint filed in Queens County Court in March 2020, Jason Hickey alleges Culum failed to inspect the passes and roster of the Oyster Bay Park team and allowed an unregistered and illegal player to play in a Long Island Soccer Football League game on Sept. 22, 2019, between the Oyster Bay Park team and the College Point Flames, an FDNY team for which Hickey played. The Flames won the contest by forfeit, 3-0.

Hickey claims a member of the Oyster Bay Park team, Isaias Gomez-Gamboa, “violently, intentionally and without any provocation or consent assaulted and committed battery” by striking and kicking Hickey in the face during the game. As a result of the assault, Hickey sustained serious injuries, including multiple facial fractures, that led to reconstructive surgery. He was unable to work as an FDNY member since the incident, according to the complaint.

Hickey also accused the USSF of failing to maintain safe playing conditions by not properly training referees, according to the complaint. The head coach of the Oyster Bay Park team, Jose Abarca, was also named as a defendant for failing to present the referee with a legal team roster and passes prior to the start of the game. According to the complaint, Abarca presented an Oyster Bay Park team roster, along with the applicable passes, but did not list Gomez-Gamboa’s name on the team’s roster, nor did Gomez-Gamboa have a league pass.

Hickey is seeking $10 million in damages from the USSF, Culum, Abarca and Gomez-Gamboa for negligence and an additional $10 million in damages from Gomez-Gamboa for assault and battery, as well as additional punitive damages for both counts, the complaint said. *

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