INDIANAPOLIS - An increasing shortage of licensed high school sports officials in Indiana may be reaching critical mass with the current global COVID-19 pandemic.

Departing IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox has used that exact term himself to describe the quandary faced by multiple high school sports.

As of 2019, the average age of IHSAA officials across all sports was over 50 years old. The association has made it a priority to recruit younger officials in the past two years. But the time commitment, travel, pay ($70-$90 per football game) and increasingly ill treatment by fans all combine to narrow the field.

Because of the pandemic, some active crews have opted to take a one-year hiatus from officiating high school football games - due to health concerns for their own senior members and/or immediate family.

Just last week, IHSAA assistant commissioner Robert Faulkens, who administers football, e-mailed officials, asking those who have decided to sit out to contact the schools with which they are contracted and make every effort to find a replacement crew.

The decision to sit out will not impact the tournament eligibility of officiating crews, Faulkens told The Indianapolis Star.

“I can certainly respect the decision not to work, given the circumstances,” Faulkens wrote. “Your eligibility will remain at the level you would have been for this season. If you and your crew are regional-eligible this year, you and your crew will be eligible when you return next year.”

A chronic referee shortage in one Northern Indiana area has caused one athletic director to consider rescheduling a varsity football game for Thursday night, if he can’t secure a crew by Aug. 1.

Rick Frank, football chair for the Indiana Officials Association, told The Star that there are at least seven or eight crews already have decided not to work this season.

Indiana high school football season, assuming it starts as normal, is set to begin Friday, Aug. 21.

One somewhat mitigating factor for the officiating shortage is that it’s quite likely that all schools will not be playing every week.

Indianapolis Public Schools already have announced they will not start school or resume athletic activities until Aug. 17, probably wiping out the first two week of football season.

Still, adjustments may become necessary, such as moving varsity games to Saturdays or cutting five-man crews to four.

In recent years, officiating crews typically have been contracted as far as five or six years ahead. But that’s rarely the case these days. Thus, Thursday or Saturday games may become the norm sooner, rather than later.

Veteran officials who’ve elected to continue this season have indicated plans to wear a mask and gloves during games, and to use an electronic whistle, which is sounded by pushing a button.

Some other changes that may be noticeable include limiting the number of footballs used to four per game, rotating and cleaning them between use.

Players on the sidelines will be allowed to move between the 10-yard lines at both ends of the field, instead of the 25-yard line, to allow social distancing.

Coaches will stand opposite on the 45-yard lines for the pregame coin toss, with only two designated players per team allowed at the coin toss.

The Dearborn County Register & Journal Press

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