Football Officiating in 2020: Will it be different without crowds?

I haven’t officiated college sports, but I have officiated high school sports. Any person who has officiated a high-school basketball or football game will encounter coaches or parents, if not both, who fiercely try to work the ref.

By Matt Zemek

It is one of the basic components of officiating that the stakeholders will try to influence your opinion and break you down if they don’t like what they see. When games are played in front of large crowds, this dynamic becomes that much more pronounced. It is obvious, and it doesn’t require an explanation.

With this in mind, one has to wonder how officiating will change — if at all — in the 2020 college football season, assuming we do indeed have one.

Whether games are played is one specific matter unto itself. If those games are played, however, it seems like a sure thing that stadiums will not have anything more than 40 to 50 percent of capacity. That seems like a best-case scenario. Packing people into a stadium seems like an impossible goal to reach at this point, at least in the absence of a vaccine. If SEC and other schools put 40 percent of fans into a large ballyard, that would feel like a remarkable victory, given the enormous logistical challenges facing collegiate athletics.

Tennessee bandThe Miami Dolphins recently released a social distancing plan for fans in Hard Rock StadiumHard Rock Stadium. The venue seats near 65,000 people. The Dolphins have laid out a plan in which no more than 15,000 fans would be allowed to watch inside the stadium on game day. That is under 25 percent of capacity. Therefore, in a 100,000-seat stadium, it would be hard to expect anything more than 25,000 people to be allowed to attend. One can scale downward for stadiums with smaller capacities.

In a best-case scenario, small-college or Texas high-school crowds will greet teams this autumn… and the officials.

It is going to be a different dynamic in football and the other team sports, if any games are played. You won’t have fans right on top of officials — not as a huge group raining down insults and taunts. Imagine a game-defining call being made in the corner of an end zone at one end of a stadium. Under a policy of social distancing, there might be 1,000 scattered fans in the corner of one end zone. Fans couldn’t be stuffed together like sardines in a normal 100,000-seat layout. They would have to keep their distance, and they would have to be spread across the various levels of the stadium, with some in the upper decks.

The level of intimidation would be orders of magnitude less than it normally is.

So, we have to put the question out there: Will officials, possibly free from the intimidation factor, be less inclined to make calls in favor of home teams in huge games? Will there be fewer cries of “CONSPIRACY!” from SEC fans this fall?

Or… will officiating continue to struggle, and will nothing fundamentally change?

Georgia CheerleaderWe are understandably — and appropriately — focused first and foremost on making sure athletes and all other participants in games are safe. If we can’t play games while ensuring public health and safety, we won’t have a season.

However, while we appropriately focus on the ultimate priorities attached to a possible staging of a 2020 college football season in a pandemic, other questions aren’t being talked about… and officiating is one of them. Will this be the year in which officials feel a level of freedom they have never felt before, enabling them to make conspicuously better calls because they aren’t intimidated by home crowds?

Or… will it simply be more of the same, and will we realize — perhaps in a new way — that officials simply can’t keep up with the speed of modern college football, and that replay is needed more than ever to back them up?

It will be fascinating to see… assuming we are lucky enough to get college football this autumn.

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