NBA referees will have to adhere to many of the same new health and safety protocols as coaches and players are this season, all part of the league’s plan to try to keep everyone safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Referees will be tested daily, just like players and coaches, and will have to comply with new league rules about avoiding bars, lounges, clubs, public gyms and many other indoor gathering spots. The league is also coming up with methods designed to reduce referee travel, some of which is still evolving.
“Obviously, we won’t be able to eliminate all travel,” said Monty McCutchen, an NBA vice president who oversees referee development and training. “As much as we would like to, that won’t be possible. But just like the league took into consideration many scheduling issues for the teams to significantly reduce travel, we’re going to look at as many possibilities on a one-year basis to reduce travel so we can effectively serve the game while still living in this pandemic.”
It’s not uncommon for NBA referees to work two or three games in a week, but teams rarely see the same referee more than once every few weeks. That may change this season, though the specifics on how remain unclear.
“We want to be good stewards to both the game and those that serve the game,” McCutchen said. “That’s the balance we’re trying to find.”
Referee hotels will be limited this season to ones that the NBA deems compliant with its protocols, and there are policies in place for how to react if a referee becomes ill or tests positive while on the road. Even the way referees get from hotels to arenas is changing: instead of all traveling together in a van, referees will now have individual car service — a decision made with social distancing and preventing potential exposure in mind. And the mileage maximum that referees can drive if they choose to go that route from one city to the next has been raised as well.
The on-court way referees go about their business is not expected to change much. Referees added a protective cloth bag over their whistles — a move made to limit how much spittle could get strewn about — when last season resumed in the bubble at Walt Disney World; the baggie is being replaced now by more of a hard plastic shell that has shown to be more effective.
Points of emphasis from last season such as traveling, regulating illegal contact initiated by offensive players both on- and off-the-ball, freedom of movement on the offensive end and respect for the game will remain top priorities for referees this year. There are no substantial rule changes.
“The game is in a really good place right now, and since it is a good place and with short cycle between last season and this season we thought it best to reinforce and continue on with last season’s points of emphasis,” said McCutchen, who led a four-day slate of virtual preseason meetings with all NBA referees that ended earlier this week. “And those will continue for this year.”