John Higgins, seen in 2018, won't be working the 2021 NCAA Tournament. He was in a group of refs that had a positive COVID-19 test.

Trying to conduct the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to challenges, including Virginia and Kansas eliminated from their conference tournaments early after positive COVID-19 tests. (The Virginia team, an eventual 4 seed, couldn’t even watch the selection show together.) Now, six of the 60 on-court officials who were set to work this event are out following a positive test and contact tracing. And, as per Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, this started with rooms and food being unavailable for these officials when they got in Sunday night, leading to them going to a restaurant:

One of the protocols in place was that the referees were not allowed to leave the hotel once they arrived unless it was to go to the arena.

The referees were told to arrive by Sunday night and check into their hotel, but multiple officials said that the rooms weren’t ready upon their arrival, nor was there any food. Instead of having the officials wait in a secure area, they were allowed to leave for dinner and the group of Ted Valentine, John Higgins, Roger Ayers, John Gaffney, Kipp Kissinger and Ray Natili all went to Harry & Izzy’s steakhouse in downtown Indianapolis.

Upon their return to the hotel, they took COVID-19 tests and one of the referees tested positive, sources told Stadium. He then tested twice on Monday morning, and tested positive.

Due to the fact that they ate together and weren’t wearing masks, the Indiana Department of Health deemed them unable to work in the NCAA Tournament.

This seems like a significant early blow for the tournament. Yes, there are other officials out there; as Goodman’s piece notes, the tournament usually has 100 on-court officials, but that number was reduced to 60 this year thanks to it all being held in Indianapolis. So there presumably are some backups who can come in. But this takes out a group of experienced officials before the first games even tip off.

Higgins, seen above during a December 2018 Texas Tech-Texas Rio Grande Valley game, has worked eight Final Fours. Valentine has worked six, Ayers has worked three and Kissinger has worked one. So this means that a lot of prominent officials won’t be working this year’s tournament. And having that whole group go down thanks to poor check-in preparations doesn’t speak well of the tournament’s overall approach to COVID protocols.

[Stadium; photo from Michael C. Johnson/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.