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BREC's Olympia Stadium, seen Friday, August 28, 2020, is set to celebrate its 50th year of high school football this fall in Baton Rouge, La.

What would make Friday Night Lights move to Thursday? A pandemic that contributes to a shortage of officials.

Marlon Harrison, Baton Rouge’s regional coordinator of officials, said the Baton Rouge Area Football Officials Association will have about 30% fewer officials to work high school games in 2020. As a result, schools are being asked to play one or more Thursday games.

“The response I’ve gotten so far from the coaches in the area has been tremendous,” Harrison said. “I started reaching out (Tuesday), and the first coach I talked to was Sid Edwards at Central. He was able to move a game to Thursday right away. Others followed.

“This was not unexpected for either us or the coaches. We have a number of members who are 55 or older in our association … I am one of them. We understand some people don’t feel comfortable officiating because of the coronavirus. You have to respect that. Our hope is they will come back next year.”

Harrison and BRAFOA vice president Adrian Daigle worked together to map out the first four weeks of the local eight-week LHSAA regular season that begins Thursday, Oct. 1.

Through four weeks, 18 Thursday games have been scheduled. That tally includes six on Oct. 8, one of which is a blockbuster showdown between Karr and Catholic High at Memorial Stadium. Schools locally and statewide were also told to be prepared to provide an emergency clock operator in a memo from LHSAA assistant executive director Lee Sanders, who coordinates officials.

“The memo I sent was very upfront about things,” Sanders said. “I told the schools to submit schedules to their RCOs as soon as possible and include non-traditional dates — days other than Friday — when they could schedule games.

“And I did ask them to recruit individuals who would be willing to serve as clock operators, if needed. Our priority is to get officials to cover the positions on the field first.”

The numbers are notable. A year ago, the LHSAA had 1,212 registered football officials. As of Wednesday, Sanders said there are 869 football officials registered. The deadline to register with the LHSAA is Sept. 29 and Sanders said he hopes to have 1,000 to 1,050, which would represent a 15 to 20% decrease statewide. Sanders also cites Hurricane Laura as another reason for a drop in registered officials in some area.

Harrison said the BRAFOA had 130 officials a year ago and sits just below 100 registered officials Wednesday. However, Harrison said six or seven registered officials have told him they intend to sit out the season. Another 12 to 15 decided not to register with the LHSAA.

By comparison, regional coordinator of officials Skip Chatelain said New Orleans has 110 officials registered and figures to be down 10 to 15 from last year’s base of about 140 officials.

“New Orleans has Thursday games and some Saturday games every year because they have fewer stadiums,” Harrison said. “The number of stadiums is not our problem. We need to make sure we have the bodies to cover the games.

“I prefer not to schedule Saturday games because the guys who work on Thursdays and Fridays also are the ones who cover those (junior varsity) and freshman games early in the week. It worked out the first four weeks. Especially this year, we need to be open anything to get games in.”

Sanders said the LHSAA’s officials’ organization, the LHSOA, is looking to offer tutorials for would-be clock operators. Harrison and Sanders said five-man officials crews will be the norm on the field. The sixth and seventh officials are clock operators. Harrison said ideally a clock operator provided by a school would operate the play clock.

While a recent virtual officials’ clinic stressed COVID-19 things, like mask-wearing and whistle covers, Harrison noted some old-school solutions.

“Before technology, the clock was kept on the field,” Harrison said. “The back judge would keep the play clock and line judge is responsible for the game clock. That is not ideal, but it can be done. Not many things are ideal these days.”


Email Robin Fambrough at rfambrough@theadvocate.com