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How will covid impact the officials?

College basketball’s referees are a vital part of the framework, but they way they do their jobs doesn’t fit a coronavirus world.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Keith Kimble was a busy man last college basketball season. College basketball’s most active referee worked 106 games from November 5th until the shutdown on March 11th. In that span Kimble had 21 days off. One of those days was not Christmas. His longest break between games was four days. In one span he worked 10 straight days. In one five day stretch he did a game in Kansas, then one in Minnesota, then one in Texas, then one in new Mexico, then one in Oregon. A New York Times study found that a college basketball referee runs about four miles per game. Kimble did that and then jumped on airplane 96 times last year.

Exhaustion aside, what does that have to do with this season? For starters, Kimble may have been the busiest official but he was hardly the only one running himself ragged. Most of the top 100 officials did more than 60 games and a great many did over 80. Even numbers in the 90s are not uncommon. All of those come with a great deal of travel. While officials are regional, they are hardly bound by that. (For example, the game before Kimble kicked off his tour of the west was a UC-UConn tilt in Ohio.) In a coronavirus world, that kind of travel is not likely at all to get accepted, let alone receive official approval.

The NBA, being a single self-contained league, has been able to bubble and bring their officials in with them. The teams that are still in the playoffs, the coaches, the television crew, and everyone involved with the games are in the same place. Could college basketball do that? It’s extremely unlikely. For starters, there are 357 (counting transitional) division one college basketball teams. There isn’t anywhere that can hold them all in a bubble, nor is anyone suggesting that. Conference bubbles are much more likely, but there lies the rub.

Using Keith Kimble as an example again you see he did games in the Big 10, Big 12, SWAC, American, Pac 12, MWC, Conference USA, ACC, SEC, and Big East last season. That’s without counting conference play. If conferences bubble their teams, it seems highly unlikely they are going to want a guy gallivanting in from Kansas by way of Oregon to pop in to do a game and then skate on off to Ohio. Kimble (or whoever) is risking a serious income loss by doing only one conference because the quantity of games simply isn’t there.

I spoke with a college official yesterday to get some idea of what the NCAA has told them regarding basketball. The answer, simply put, was nothing. As of right now that plan just isn’t in place. For once it’s hard to blame college sport’s governing body as every football conference that initially spoke about prioritizing health has decided, in true American fashion, that prioritizing income is a much better idea and declared their season back on. This has thrown football officiating into flux, and that particular sport is much easier to schedule and manage than basketball. For now, as with everything, the officials join the rest of us in sitting and waiting.