Electronic whistles a key way CEBL is adjusting to the COVID era

As the CEBL becomes the first Canadian pro league to return to action, an option for referees to use an electronic whistle is among many ways the sport is adapting to its new COVID-19 normal.

Socially distanced broadcasts, 4 balls per game among other changes

Former NBA ref Joe Crawford holds a pealess whistle in his mouth during a game. The officiating staple could be going out of style as leagues investigate its electronic counterpart. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Before the pandemic, train conductors, school principals and lifeguards were the most likely users of the electronic whistle.

Now the Fox40 product is selling at a record pace as pro sports leagues scramble to create a safer environment in the wake of COVID-19.

"We've had in the last two months communication from just about every major sport in the world," said Ron Foxcroft, Fox40 founder. "And to be really honest with you, we can't keep the electronic whistle in stock right now for team sports because of the pandemic."

The electronic whistle makes the same sound as a regular whistle, but it's triggered by pushing a button instead of blowing air, minimizing the prospect of airborne transmission of the virus.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League is among those pro sports adopting the whistle. Referees will be given their choice which to use.

Foxcroft is a former basketball referee. He officiated the Olympic gold-medal game in 1976 and spent time in NCAA's Division 1. The 75-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native currently serves as the NBA's game replay coordinator in Toronto.

Foxcroft came up with the pealess whistle — a whistle without that pea-sized ball in it — in 1987, and his company now manufactures product for the NBA, CFL, NFL, Olympics and more.

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The electronic whistle has been around for a decade. It makes the same noise as the pealess version — 120 decibels — but has been used by institutions such as schools, search-and-rescue police and rail transport because they can be issued to an intramural ref, for example, then taken back, sanitized and re-issued to someone else.

That holds obvious appeal during a pandemic.

Pro sports haven't adopted the electronic whistle because of the mechanical adjustment it requires for referees.

"Referees have to react, and it's quick, so rather than putting air into the whistle, they're putting their thumb on to the whistle," said Foxcroft.

Foxcroft expects some inadvertent whistles at the beginning of the experiment. Not that refs will garner much sympathy from fans.

"You know the best game you could referee is when you're fully concentrated, you have nothing else in your life. And I think we're gonna raise the level of concentration more in referees as they get used to the electronic whistle," said Foxcroft.

The CEBL has training in place for its officials to test out the new whistle before they determine which to use. Additionally, the league is offering its refs a whistle mask, also made by Fox40.

'It's going to look a lot different'

That change is just one of many the league is implementing for its Summer Series in St. Catharines, Ont., that begins Saturday. One thing refs won't be protected from is an angry player blowing hot air after a questionable call.

"Basketball is an emotional game and no one should expect that that could be managed in any way over and above how it's normally managed," said John Lashway, president of the CEBL's Hamilton Honey Badgers.

According to Lashway, the end product will look different on TV than any basketball before.

"We've got this whole arena ourselves. So we're going to spread out and it's going to look a lot different with the social distancing."

The St. Catharine's Standard reported on Wednesday that five players tested positive, but were cleared to play since exposure to the virus occurred more than two weeks ago. The CEBL provided testing on Thursday, but won't for the remainder of the tournament, instead relying on public health centres.

Lashway says medical experts were relied upon in creating health protocols, and rules may be fluid as the tournament advances. The Niagara region moved into Stage 3 of its reopening on Friday.

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The Meridian Centre in St. Catharines has a 5,300-seat capacity which will be left unfilled. The league is bringing the minimum number of arena workers — enough that no one is working two jobs at once. The goal is to limit the amount of people inside the building as much as possible.

For TV viewers, that could lead to more natural sound. However, as was the case last season, music will be played throughout the entire game.

"People at home will hear sometimes, they'll hear the squeaks on the floor, but a lot of times they're going to get a little taste of the entertainment experience that makes the CEBL different than any other league," said Lashway.

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The broadcast crew, who typically sit with their feet on the court, are being pushed back. The play-by-play person will be placed six feet apart from the colour analyst. Instead of reporting to the scorer's table as usual, refs will input play data at a table of their own.

There are four locker rooms, and with no more than four teams playing on a given day, each club will have its own space for the entirety of game day — before emptying out for overnight sanitization.

Players will be given individual baskets to store things like towels, water bottles, rosin and talcum powder. Those will be marked by numbers and kept by players at their bench –— which is also sanitized after every use.

Before a regular game, refs choose a ball that's used for the entire game. Now, the CEBL will swap in a new basketball each quarter.

"That's going to really inconvenience the players. The players are going to notice that," said Lashway.

Unsurprisingly then, players were not consulted on the CEBL's health protocols. 

An adjustment to electronic whistles, should refs choose that route, won't be ideal either. Foxcroft said all these changes boil down to one principle.

"I just think now we have an option with the electronic whistle, because health and safety is paramount to everything we're doing today."

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