Joe Burke said “It’s a choice thing.”
His is to continue officiating high school basketball games like he’s been doing since 1998. At the same time the successful CBA football coach and veteran Section II referee can understand why a significant number of his striped peers are sitting this season out.
“This is risk,” Burke, an International Association of Approved Basketball Officials Board 36 member, said of working hoop games in the COVID-19 era. “There’s always risk. You hope the guy up above takes care of us and makes sure everyone gets to the finish line.”
Players, coaches and referees will head to the starting line this week in what will be Section II’s first school basketball games since the COVID-19 pandemic reached New York last March. Like the less-than-usual number of players and coaches, there will be fewer refs out there, too.
“A lot of guys have opted not to officiate. A good number of them,” said Tom Jacques, a retired referee and the boys’ game assignor for Board 36. “A lot of guys are up there in age and they are going to err on the side of caution. Some of them are teachers. In some cases, their job is a constraint.”
Board 36 president and 25-year referee Jack Grogan said his organization has an average yearly roster of about 160 officials, and that between 35 to 40 have indicated they will not work this winter.
“We’re getting a lot of, ‘Young kids at home. Taking care of elderly parents,'” said Grogan, who confirmed that he will work games this season. “It’s not in their best interest at this time. There are no hard feelings with that. A lot of them are saying they’ll definitely come back next year.”
That is Paul Gordon’s game plan. The Capital District Board of Women’s Basketball Officials president and referee since 1977 is stepping away temporarily.
“I’m not taking the chance. Too much risk out there,” Gordon said. “I’ll be back.”
Gordon said that a large number from his organization has indicated they will return after this season, as well.
“We started the season with 152 officials and we’re down to 86. It’s staggering,” said Gordon, who has presided over his organization since 2007. “They love to ref, but the recurring theme is they all have families. Some, young families. They don’t want to subject themselves to this.”
“I think this is a situation we all could have seen coming,” said Fonda-Fultonville athletic director and boys’ basketball coach Eric Wilson. “It’s not just for basketball. You also saw it with soccer.”
“Every sport in Section II,” Gordon said. “People got out.”
Even so, Gordon said his organization will have enough available referees to work girls’ games this winter, which won’t have every school and level competing because of COVID-19-related decisions.
“Our assignor [Skip Spensieri] said we’ll have enough,” Gordon said. “There is no modified this year. Some schools have no JVs. You’ve got schools that aren’t playing at all. Hoosick Falls opted out. Lansingburgh opted out. We’ll cover the games.”
Grogan said Board 36 will also have enough refs to get the job done in the boys’ contests.
“We should be able to cover them with no problem,” Grogan said. “We may have to double up working a JV and varsity game. I think we’ll be OK.”
Wilson said Fonda-Fultonville and the four other Montgomery County schools that will compete in their own “mini” league will go on Mondays and Thursdays for much of the abbreviated season “to help that situation out.”
“It’s kind of an odd combination of [playing] days in an odd year,” said Wilson, who serves on the Section II boys’ tournament officials committee. “We want to make sure we have officials at our games, and coinciding with that, make sure they’re not scrambling. At this time we’re in, when you can do something to help someone, you do it.”
Opting to referee at this time is one of the ways Burke will assist youngsters who have for months been denied athletic opportunities.
“No one is playing for any big championships. It’s just to get kids on the court running around again. That’s the main thing,” said Burke, who works as the home school coordinator at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. “I want to be a part of helping them do that.”
Burke said he is just as anxious as the youngsters are to run up and down courts after his own extended layoff from group athletics. His football team wasn’t allowed to play last fall due to COVID-19 restrictions, and will instead compete in the “Fall II” season that starts next month.
“I’ve been sitting around since March like everyone else,” Burke said.
Burke added that his willingness to participate is based in part on the many safety protocols that have been set in place for the coaches, players, game staff and stripe-clad individuals that will join together in gymnasiums in the coming weeks.
“I can only speak for myself,” Burke said. “You can do it right as long as everyone continues to follow rules the governor and the Department of Health put in place, like washing hands, wearing a mask, keeping distance. You’ve got to be smart.”
“We’re telling our people to go out, do your job, and be safe,” Jacques said.