Spencer Cihak
ASU Student Journalist

To ref or not to ref? The global pandemic has forced some difficult decisions

December 9, 2020 by Spencer Cihak, Arizona State University

Referees in the days before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything (photo courtesy Tucson Football Officials Association)

Spencer Cihak is an ASU Cronkite School of Journalism student assigned to cover Hamilton High School for AZPreps365.com

In 2020, because of the global pandemic, many athletes had to decide whether or not they wanted to participate in sports.

The decision of how much risk is too much risk has been deliberated worldwide. High school athletes often were at the forefront of this debate. Sometimes, all of the hard work and dedication that went into preparing for a season came to a halt. Other times, parents and schools had to be willing to let their children take a gamble and compete while following strict COVID-19 protocols

High school referees had to make the same choices, all while knowing that the risks they were taking could have dire consequences. 

                               (photo courtesy gazette.com)


What is family to you?
 As a child, family might be your parents and siblings. It’s not until you’re older that you realize family could be anyone.
 When you hear
 athletes talk about their team, they often refer to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Referees of all ages have their own definition of family.

After months of hoping and waiting for fall sports to be played, the AIA announced they’d return back to their regularly scheduled games, albeit with many stark changes. With that came a new schedule, a new hope … and a new set of worries and fears of possible exposure to the deadly virus.

Risk for becoming severely ill with COVID-19 increases with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with adults over the age of 65 at greater risk of requiring hospitalization or dying. In addition, certain medical conditions can also increase risk for severe illness, and people who live with or visit others who are in high-risk categories must take precautions. 

Umpires -- either because of their age, their own health concerns or their living situations -- had to seriously weigh their options. 

The AIA’s announcement that fall sports would be played meant referees were finally able to reunite. Gary Fadell, a 69-year-old Phoenix attorney who has been working as a referee for 35 years, described the camaraderie that comes with the fellowship of referees as something similar to being part of one large family.

“We train, travel together, we get ready together,” Fadell said. “After the games, we’ve eaten together. These are brothers and sisters for three months or four months out of the year, and you're always happy to see these folks, and you know that in stressful situations, during the game that they have your back and in turn you have their back and show there is a bond that forms, and it's pretty difficult to break that bond down once it's there.” 

The physical demands of being a referee, said Fadell, could be rigorous. In his three-plus decades of running the sidelines with athletes often 50 years younger than him -- basketball is his main game -- staying in prime physical condition has always been important.

“Preparation for games not only includes books and meetings and classes, but also physical preparation. Really good officials who officiate well try and maintain a kind of a year-round degree of physical fitness,” Fadell said. “So the old days of, ‘I'm going to get in shape for the season. I gotta do it in 30 days or 45 days’ has kind of been done away with. And it's really a year-round conditioning that a lot of officials try to follow.” 

After much deliberation, Fadell decided he couldn’t take the chance of refereeing this year.

There were a number of factors that went into Fadell’s decision about whether to participate in the activity that has been a big focus of much of his adult life. At 69, he fell into the high-risk category. And while the AIA has attempted to enforce strict protocols to keep athletes, coaches and officials safe, what if one or two schools went rogue and disobeyed those protocols?

“I think probably another big factor was really the policy. Here in the state, they left COVID precautions to the local school districts,” Fadell said. “I know that AIA has publicly come out and stated what their, you know, desires and preferences are, what their requirements are.”

After refereeing high school games for 35 years, he chose to hang up his whistle.


With the AIA’s welcome announcement about fall sports came a new schedule, new changes and a new reality for Beverly Nielsen, a referee for 41 years. 

She spent the summer 
learning what the “new normal” meant for her job with the City of Mesa Youth Programs. Events that used to draw thousands now had to be drastically slimmed down.

“We were doing an event and the kids had to register,” Nielsen said. “We can only have 20 kids and just their parents so that equals 40. So we could have a couple volunteers and staff so we could have 50 (total), because we have to keep [participants] down and we’re used to 10,000 people at an event.” 

Even with so much change because of COVID-19, Nielsen said she is still having fun, describing work the best way anyone could -- by referencing an iconic R.E.M song.

“The event was so much fun I just thought that it’s the end of the world as I know it. And I've been doing (this) for the last three years working with the City of Mesa, but we're fine, and we had a great time,” she said. “It was just wonderful and we have more of these events planned and it's not the same, but we can work through this. And that's the same thing we've done with our volleyball season.” 

Along with softball and being on the pom line, Nielsen played volleyball in her youth. It’s now the sport she referees for the AIA. Despite the risks, she chose to continue with her passion, which meant she would be around her second family. The volleyball season, she said, was similar to almost any other, as only four games were subtracted from the schedule. 

After going 
through the entire season without incident, 
Nielsen believes COVID-19 has taught people some powerful lessons.

“I think one of the biggest things that has happened is people have learned to be respectful of others,” she said. 

Just like they were for high school athletes, referees’ preseason meetings were conducted on Zoom. Nielsen said that made for some really cool opportunities.

“It was marvelous, we got people talking and it was just fun, somebody from Thatcher was talking to somebody from the city here in Mesa and somebody from Flagstaff was able to come in and talk to an official from Benson,” she said, describing the various referees from around Arizona. “That was fun to see that Tucson officials were able to talk to people from Northern Arizona.”

Game day operations of course changed dramatically, but Nielsen said those changes only made the games better. The pregame scene, she said, no longer meant coaches and four or five captains coming together. Officials were not allowed to pick up lineups and check them with pencils, or touch the table. It was a tough habit to break.

“Sometimes I would pick (one) up and (think), ‘Oh, no! I’m not gonna remember not to take that,'" she said. “Those are habits. We try to keep distance from the table. I think these habits are pretty good.”

While so much is different now,  it’s not the end of the world as we know it. “And you know what, in two years, it will be the norm if that's where we're going,” she said. 

IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT ME                                         

Andre Stephens, high school class of 1996, was different from all of the other referees I spoke to. For starters, while refs like Nielsen have been in action for 41 years, Stephens is only 42 years old. 

Any frequent air traveler is aware of his daily work as he is responsible for making the evacuation slides on airplanes. He must be very health-conscious,  because why else would a 42-year-old man take almost every vitamin in the book?

To figure out why, all you have to do is ask about his mother --  Ms. Stephens as she was known around their community in Detroit growing up.

“She had me under her thumb like, ‘No you’re not going to this high school, we’re going to buy a house, you’re not growing up in this neighborhood,’ and she busted her [butt] to make sure that I didn't end up in jail or dead,” Stephens said of his mother.

Ms. Stephens is why her son was involved with karate growing up and why, when all the kids were riding their bikes on the street, he had to ride his on the sidewalk.    

Late in 2019, Ms. Stephens realized she needed a change of scenery. She suffers from nerve damage and the winters in Detroit were causing her great pain. She had friends in Detroit helping care for her in her senior living community -- she was the youngest person there -- but her only family was in Phoenix. 

After so many years of his mom taking care of him and keeping him busy and active in athletics, Stephens decided to take care of her.

“I had an apartment, she was talking to me saying she was tired of being down there and she wanted me to help her find an apartment and I was like why would I pay this kind of money to stay separate?” he said. “For that kind of money we could get a house.”    

Ms. Stephens moved to Phoenix on December 30, 2019, the day before the World Health Organization in China said it was “informed of cases of pneumonia unknown etiology”, which eventually was named COVID-19. Two months later, four people Ms. Stephens knew in her Detroit senior living community had contracted the virus. 

Stephens did not want to chance the possibility that a student-athlete might transmit sweat or blood and possibly compromise him to the virus. So he made a decision for himself and for his immediate family -- his mom, Ms. Stephens -- and decided he couldn’t risk refereeing games. He spent the fall season on the sideline.


                                                 (photo courtesy Azcentral.com)

The deadly pandemic isn’t the only reason some referees have had to curtail their love of the game. 

Refereeing high school basketball games in the Valley gave Ron Becker a home-away-from-home family after he relocated to Phoenix from the East Coast. Growing up in Buffalo, he was captain of his high school swim team. As an adult, he competed in basketball tournaments at Valparaiso University, and in adult leagues.

Like all AIA officials, Becker, a retired business executive and teacher, had to complete detailed sessions before he earned his stripes. 

“To be honest, being a trainee as an adult sucks,” Becker, 79, wrote in an email. ”For example, I have a big voice on the court. I could be heard all over, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing and I was told more than once, ‘You’re only talking to the scorer’s table.’ The instructors are not all smiles and easy going.

“The training group changes as senior officials have other assignments and commitments for training purposes. So, they make their points and move on.Training sessions were intense and having steady partners game after game was a blessing.”

Refereeing high school basketball games didn’t mean just tossing on a jersey and grabbing a whistle. 

“Pre-season for basketball officials is intense and especially so for beginners,” Becker said. “In Phoenix we met two months in advance twice each week at local junior colleges and Arizona State where we got to officiate games in front of our peers, college officials, and a few professional referees from the Phoenix area.

“I loved the seasons and the camaraderie of officials, and the joy of players and fans,” he added.

The intense physical requirements from refereeing eventually forced Becker to retire. If it weren’t for two knee replacement surgeries in the past year, he would still be sending players to the free throw line today.

“I was sensitive to fans, coaches and other officials coming up to me and saying, ‘You sure can run for a handicapped guy.’ I could still get down the court on a fast break and be set up under the basket when the player drove for his layup and I was in position to assure a clean play or not,” he said. “I think that was a big deal for me, to be in position for key plays. I know it saved me a lot of grief from coaches because they couldn’t say I was out of position. When I couldn’t tolerate the pain anymore, I called it a career.”

Perhaps no story better shows the unity between all referees than one Becker shared. All referees are usually assigned a partner or two calling basketball games, and just like the athletes, the referees need to be prompt when it comes to game time. Becker recalled a game he was officiating between Brophy and Shadow Mountain where two officials did not show up. 

“No matter how good an official any of us were, we were only as good as our partner,” Becker said. “Lucky for me, it turned out that a senior official was in the stands to observe the game and there I was all alone on the sidelines checking my watch. He came up to me and said, 'I think you are about to have a big problem.' I said, 'Yeah, tell me about it.' So, he went to his car, got his gear and we did the game together. 

“Mind you, he had been refereeing for 15 years. So the game started and ended the same way: both teams were starting their fast break from the inbounds lane with long passes so that neither one of us hardly ever got past half court and set up as officials for half court play. 

“During halftime he said, 'I’ve never seen anything so confusing in all my years.' The point being, things don’t always go well, and we have to keep making comebacks. We get down, sometimes way down, but we keep coming back.”

It’s not the end of the word as we know it, as R.E.M so hauntingly sang, though Becker’s knees don’t feel fine. But if they did, he doesn’t think COVID-19 would have prevented him from refereeing Arizona high school sports events, even as he approaches his 80th birthday. 

“If I could run without limping I would have continued to referee,” he said. “And I would probably be doing football as well.”