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THE FRONT ROW WITH JASON ELLIOTT: Don’t pile on, and other new football issues

| August 22, 2020 1:08 AM

Next Friday, the hope is that for the most part, you won’t notice the officials on the field for those high school football games in the area.

They’ll still be there, but a few things will change when it comes to how the game looks and runs during the time of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

THE PANDEMIC has already shut down the Pac-12 Conference, Big Sky Conference and Frontier Conference until the spring of 2021.

And with Washington also pushing things to the spring, all eyes will be on the state of Idaho as to how things proceed this year.

Some officials and referees will use an electronic whistle, or an airless whistle during the upcoming season, scheduled to get started locally next Friday with four games in the surrounding area.

“Masks are recommended for officials during games,” District 1 Football Commissioner Roger Stewart said. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to wear masks and use electronic whistles.”

That is, if you can find one.

“They’re back ordered until October,” Stewart said. “So if you have one, you’re good. If you don’t, then you’re kind of stuck.”

As of Friday, only Kellogg has a mask mandate when it comes to athletics, requiring officials to wear masks and use electronic whistles during games.

“We’re just going to have to find enough electronic whistles,” Stewart said. “Like everything else, we’re trying to figure it out day by day.”

Three District 1 officials opted out of the season due to COVID concerns.

“One had to back out because of their job and another because of a family history,” Stewart said. “60% of our guys now have five years or less experience, so we’ve been having some turnover. But we have some young officials, and we’re really proud of them. And they’re working college ball too. But it’s been very difficult getting new officials.”

With Washington high schools not playing in the fall, Stewart said they could use some officials from that state down the road, but it is not a concern as of yet.

“We’ve had some that have offered to come help,” Stewart said. “It’s on a week-to-week basis. But if someone gets sick, we might have to look into that, but right now we’re good with our numbers.”

And about how the game is going to look?

“The biggest thing is we’ve got to change our mechanics and how we do things,” Stewart said. “We can’t be digging into piles for football and have to communicate and work with the kids and maintaining space for us. Diving into the pile, pulling kids off the pile isn’t going to happen. So far, the coaches have been on board and understand the situation and changing the rules to space out on the sidelines. They’re all gung ho about making that happen. We’re all in this together and try to remind people of this always. This year, that’s going to be amplified.”

GETTING THE officials to the games — with limited carpools — is another chore as well.

“We’ll have to social distance and do other sanitation things where we’ll be spaced out,” Stewart said. “Our district goes from Potlatch to Bonners Ferry and from Mullan to Post Falls, but with no extra budget for extra drivers. We’ll have to figure it out, but we’ve got to be smart about it. If you’ve got symptoms, even before you get in the car, you’ve got to step out.”

Stewart added that in most years, he’d do an officials schedule anywhere up to five weeks at a time. This fall however, with all the changes, assignments are released on Mondays at noon in case of scheduling issues.

In addition to his duties with area high school football, Stewart, 60, has also been an official for the Big Sky Conference for the past 26 years.

“Our supervisor was really, really on top of the whole COVID thing early,” Stewart said. “He made it clear with the conference in the first meeting we had in January that it was full steam ahead. When things started to get a little different, he’s been up front about everything going on. He told us, if you want to opt out, we don’t want you to feel unsafe. At the Big Sky level, we had quite a few officials — like 9 or 10 — that were going to opt out for various reasons. Most of them had to do with travel restrictions, but now with things being moved to the spring, everyone is back on board.”

And while it was discussed amongst his family, Stewart was planning on officiating in the fall had the Big Sky not canceled its season.

“Within my own family, we have a doctor, physical therapist and a teacher,” Stewart said. “We had sometimes a heated, healthy discussion within the family. It just depends on where you’re coming from, but we had a good discussion. Not everyone wanted me on the field, but I did not choose to opt out. I’d planned on changing how close I was to the players and how I was going to officiate, and just go from that.”

For now, the biggest protocol is keeping it simple.

“We’re going to change out the ball more often,” Stewart said. “I’ve been an official for 36 years, and it will be the first in 26 years I won’t be on a college field. Guys like Steve Hudson, Steve Currie, Shane Anderson (all local Pac-12 Conference football officials), Bob Burton (a Big Sky Conference replay official) and I, we can go golfing a little more on Saturday for right now.”

Jason Elliott is a sports writer for the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached by telephone at (208) 664-8176, Ext. 2020 or via email at jelliott@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter @JECdAPress.