Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Superbowl Officials


I was amused to see that hundreds of people have visited my personal website Monday, a steady stream since the end of Superbowl XL. This is unique for me, so I tracked back to see what was generating the interest. Turns out it was the phrase “Superbowl Officiating”, which I used in my parody piece about “dead-blogging” the Superbowl. A lot of it was from Google, where I am presently the third slot under that phrase. Wahoo, I guess.

Reading through some of the stuff out there, there are a lot of people angry about how SuperBowl Extra-Large was handled by the refs. This surprised me, because I saw a very good job done by the zebras on Sunday, especially given the stakes. I was especially impressed with how the officials worked as a unit, a factor made difficult by the NFL’s playoff selection program. But I am well aware that people will insult and blame the officials when their team loses. It’s so ingrained into some people, that they don’t even notice the hypocrisy and immaturity such behavior reflects. I also noticed that not one of the most vocal and angry critics of NFL officiating claimed to have served as an official at any level. That figures, but it reminds me that it needs discussion as well.

I was an official at one time or another in Texas UIL and various leagues of Basketball, Football, Baseball, Wrestling, and occasionally in Volleyball, between 1982 and 2001. I gave it up when my job hours changed, and to spend more time with my family, but I started because of what officiating offers. Officials do not do the job to get rich; as my wife can attest, sometimes you lose money making long trips, getting tired and dirty, and sometimes getting stiffed on your game fees by the School District or Athletic Association. Officials do not do the job in order to show how important they are; an official who wants attention is not going to last long, or get serious assignments. But a true official knows he/she can make a difference in safety, in fair play, and in sportsmanship, and he can have a real impact in helping young athletes develop leadership and responsibility. That comes with a cost, of course. There are always a few coaches or players who cannot obey the rules, who find it preferable to cheat if they think they can get away with it, and who blame any bad turn of events on the ref. Also, there are innumerable fans who, rather than congratulate a fine performance by their team by respecting a better effort by their opponents when they lose, insist on blaming the officials just for doing their job.

But I loved the game. I had a job where I worked 6:00 AM to 3:00 PM, which let me off early enough to get to HISD games by 3:30, and I could work games as far away as Katy or even El Campo if they didn’t start until 5:00 PM. That’s because you have to arrive in time to suit up and have a decent pregame, and any decent ref knew two or three ways to get to the school/field on time.

Some officials are good enough to work Varsity High School, but not all. And some are good enough to work College ball. Then there are the pros, where a whole new reality gets involved. Since we’re focusing here on the Superbowl, I will just talk now about the National Football League.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking the NFL is just a bigger and faster and stronger version of the NCAA. Don’t you believe it!! The National Football League, more than anything else, is a business, and their product is not the game so much as it is the exhibition of the game. That means that everything is controlled to produce the maximum results in terms of revenue, audience, and name recognition. And that means anything or anyone can be and is sacrificed in service to that objective. A prime example is former crew chief Phil Luckett, who was falsely demonized for “blowing” a coin toss call in a Thanksgiving game between Detroit and Pittsburgh in 1998. Jerome Bettis tried an old trick, calling “hea-tails” as the coin was in the air, hoping to either win the toss of get another try. Luckett knew the NFL rule however, which committed a player calling the toss to the first “indication” of his choice, meaning that when the coin landed tails up, the Lions properly won the toss and Bettis lost. According to Referee magazine, not only did the NFL agree that Luckett made the correct call, but it actually made a training video for referees showing the incident as the “right” way to handle just such a situation. Referee magazine even included a quote from CBS, alleging that a boom mike during the commercial break caught Bettis admitting to sideline coaches “he caught me”, meaning that not only did Luckett make the correct technical call, but had properly prevented a deliberate attempt to cheat. Yet to this day the NFL refuses to publicly defend Luckett. As a result, Luckett, who was the target of insults and even death threats for doing his job right, gave up the white hat of a crew chief and settled for being a Back Judge. This is a serious injustice in my opinion, if for no reason besides the fact that many of the best officials in football would never consider working for the NFL, because the league has no interest in putting the best officials on the field, nor of defending these professionals when some moron insults them without the first idea of what he’s talking about.

So, why kind of man would make it in the NFL as a referee? First off, you have to be relatively young, tall, and strong, financially secure and sure enough of yourself that you can stand the jackals insulting you all year long. Ed Hochuli is a good example. The 56 year old Hochuli is well over six feet tall, works out and weightlifts regularly, to the point that his biceps compare favorably to many linemen. He is a private attorney, with a steady income and control of his schedule. The NFL loves this sort of image; sadly the days of “Red” Cashion are gone. But that’s just the beginning.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business, but you’d never know it by how they pay their officials. As an example, a magazine reported in 2001 that “an NFL official with five years in the league made $27,105 last year. That compares with salaries of $128,000 in the NBA, $139,000 in the NHL and $141,000 in major-league baseball for officials with commensurate experience" (note – I think that number climbed a bit after 2001, but not hardly to the levels of the other sports, to say nothing of the pay handed out to League office suits). Also, unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball, the NFL does not treat officials as full-time employees, but as contractors. This is to avoid benefits, of course, like health insurance or any kind of pension plan.

And then there are the working conditions. First off, an NFL official is considered a “part time” guy by the NFL, but he is required to be available for drug testing year-round. In addition, he must allow the NFL to review all of his banking transactions, again throughout the year. And an NFL official is barred from traveling to any city or location within 75 miles of a casino or gambling establishment, without prior written approval from the league, again no matter what time of year. Got a brother getting married in Vegas? Tough luck. You won a trip to Monte Carlo? Denied. Your mother in Atlantic City died? See if you can get them to bury her in Scranton.

And then there’s the actual football-related job. First off, an NFL official is expected to keep himself in shape, costs for health club not reimbursed by the League. The official is expected to attend certain officiating clinics, again not reimbursed by the NFL. The NFL official has to work at some training camps, as well as a number of pre-season games.

Ahhhh, but at least after that it’s the gravy of the NFL regular season, right? How’s this hypothetical schedule for fun:

Bart, we’ll call him, lives in Houston, which means he will never be allowed to work Texans games, is a Head Linesman on his crew. It’s 7 PM in Seattle, and he’s just finished working the Seahawks afternoon home game. Bart and his crew-mates will finish up their paperwork on fouls called and explanations, along with any incidents they need to discuss, and also hold a postgame discussion about what went right during the game, and things to work on. After that, having showered and changed, the referee crew will leave, each official heading back to his home town. Bart arrives back in Houston around 11 PM, because he has to schedule his flights late in case of Overtime or another complication. As soon as he arrives home, Bart pulls the game tape from his Tivo, and NFL Sunday Ticket, which is mandatory for all officials to subscribe to and use. If for any reason the game tape is not viewable or did not record, Bart must notify the League office immediately. He also prepares his written reports to be mailed off to the League office, although the originals are also sent in by the crew chief.

Monday, Bart reviews his game all over again, and in every situation where he did or could have made a call, he writes down a report of his actions, a critique of whether he made the right call, and if not, what he should have done in that situation. This report must arrive at the League office by noon Wednesday, where it will be compared to a report made by another official who did not work the game. A grade will be prepared, which will not immediately be revealed to Bart.

Wednesday, Bart takes part in a phone conference with his crew, to discuss the next upcoming game, especially what to look for and be aware of. This means the crew will have watched the two upcoming teams in their last game, as well as review some thoughts on the weather and field conditions, the coaches, and anything else likely to affect the working conditions on Sunday. They also discuss their review of the tape, and anything they noticed on tape that they missed during the actual game.

Thursday, Bart packs for the upcoming game. He’s laundered his uniform and checked his gear for game condition. He also packs a briefcase with all the forms he will need, from foul reports to game incident reports, and assorted pads, pencils and pens he will need (the pens stay in the briefcase, by the way – a broken pencil is no big deal, but a broken pen, let’s just say you don’t need that during a game). He checks his Tivo and his tickets for the flight, along with his answering machine and all the things a guy has to do when he has to travel often. As of noon Thursday, Bart is prohibited from any alcohol, because officials are not allowed to drink for 72 hours before a game, or for 24 hours afterward.

Early Saturday, Bart take the flight to Atlanta for the next game, this time the Falcons at home, but not against either of the two teams he worked last week – the League tries very hard to avoid the appearance, however slight, of impropriety on the part of its officials. Bart has to be in Atlanta 24 hours ahead of game time, by League rule. Bart settles for tucking his kids into bed Saturday night by phone, just as he did the previous Sunday.

Sunday morning, Bart is at the stadium by 8 AM, four hours ahead of game time, again by League rule. The pregame is pretty much no more than ritual, but the crew goes through everything anyway. Then comes the equipment check and field walk. This has to be done by 11 AM, but most crews working a natural turf field will do it early, so the groundskeeper has a decent chance to do any work that’s needed. Not since the Astrodome fiasco in 1995 has a field actually been ruled too dangerous to play, but officials know better than to leave anything to chance. Same for the footballs; the Back Judge may find it incredibly boring, but he will check the air pressure on every ball used during the game, and make his mark on the approved balls. The Back Judge and another official will also test their watches, since the on-field watches are the actual official time-keepers of the game. Other officials will test out other equipment, including the crew chief, who must make sure his microphone is in good order. The crew will also discuss game conditions with the television network, who make up the money end of the game for the most part, and therefore are the League’s most important customer to keep happy.

Finally, game time. One obvious thing that a lot of people don’t realize, is that the referees on the field each have different responsibilities and assigned territories. The crew chief, for example, focuses on the Quarteback and what happens to him and around him. Bart, our hypothetical Head Linesman, controls the Line-of-Scrimmage and Line-to-gain markers, and focuses his attention on the snap of the ball, line blocking during pass plays, action around the runner on running plays to his side, and follow-up action when the running play goes away from him. He also has principal responsibility for whether a Quarterback is beyond the line of scrimmage when he passes the ball. If he throws a flag, Bart will note on a small pad the basics of what happened (number, foul, time) and report the foul to the crew chief. An amazing number of people forget that while the crew chief signals the fouls to the press box, he does not usually throw the flag himself.

Officials know the rules, far better than the idiots who complain about them, but also their context. For example, if Bart sees the guard on his side hold the oncoming defensive lineman, and as a result the running back gets through for a gain, he will flag that hold, but usually he will not flag it if the hold has nothing to do with the play, say the running back going around to the other side away from where the hold happened. I mention this because good judgment is a critical component in a football official. Call everything that’s technically not clean and you will throw flags all day and get everyone upset, but don’t throw a flag when a player is doing something which is dangerous, gains an unfair advantage, or is just unsportsmanlike, and you let the game get out of control. That balance is very, very hard to achieve with players this fast, smart, and tough.

You will note that I have not criticized a single call by any NFL official. Do they make mistakes? Of course, but not nearly as often as people claim, and the guys who work the actual games are as good as the NFL could hope to get. And I have worked enough strange situations, that I never second-guess a call made by the one guy who was in position. Sorry, but a television does not really give you a better view of what really happened, because you are seeing an artificial perspective. No matter what the saying claims, the camera does lie. And by the time you get to the Playoffs, the crews are officials who have achieved the highest scores and the greatest respect from coaches. That’s one reason coaches don’t whine all that much about officials – they know what they are getting, and the coaches have a lot of say in that order. The only problem with Playoff crews, is that these are officials who have not worked all that often together, and it takes a little while to get them in sync. But I laugh scornfully at anyone who wants to pretend the Superbowl referees are anything but highly-trained and much-critiqued professionals, who have been hardened to work in conditions which would crack ordinary men. Just as it is stupid to mock any team good enough to win its League Championship to get to the Superbowl, it is grossly unfair to suggest that the officials aren’t up to the job. In my opinion, while everyone has the right to speak their mind, when people gripe about referees without the personal experience of being one, they only prove their own banality and boorish pique. The NFL officials who work the Superbowl have worked harder with less credit, longer with less pay, and accurately with less recognition than any comparable professional. Anyone who is not happy with them, is welcome to try to replace them. Of course, it will take you about two decades (if you make the fast track) to work your way through JV games, to a spot on a High School crew, to a minor college conference, to the I-A conferences, and then if you’re really good, really lucky, but also really humble, then you might get a chance to try out for one of the few open slots in the NFL’s officiating ranks. And if you do, you can count on the derision from people who have never bothered to look up a rule book, let alone take up the whistle.

And to Mr. Leavy and his crew, well done gentlemen, it was a pleasure to watch you work together.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for setting those who blamed the refs for the Seattle loss straight! Winning is not just about being the most talented team. It's also about over coming adversity which Seattle could not do. What we see over and over from different camera angles, the refs have to call in a split second. They are right there, we are seeing it from a different perspective through a lens of a camera in slow motion. Hats off to the Refs!