Does the NFL Have Professional Sports' Best Referees?

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Does the NFL Have Professional Sports' Best Referees?
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Every sport needs officials. They are part of what makes each game great, but they’re also all too often at the center of attention for all the wrong reasons.

In essence, officials are needed to enforce the rules everybody has agreed to play by, but just like everybody else out there, they’re only human, and they make mistakes too.

In the wake of another blown call late in last night’s NBA Finals, I’m asking: Does the NFL have the best officials in sports?

The NFL and its officials are currently embroiled in a dispute not unlike last offseason’s CBA negotiations with the players, but unlike a year ago, nobody really cares because it’s only officials. If the season starts with no Tom Brady, people take issue, but will anyone lose sleep over no Mike Carey?

The stalemate has dragged on so long that the NFL has sent out the call for possible replacement officials should a deal not get done before the season.

Last Night's 4th quarter no-call. Blown call?

I would say officiating is a thankless task, but it’s not, and in some cases those officials are very well compensated for their work, which for many is merely a second job on the weekends.

A five-year NFL official averaged $115,000 a year last year, according to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, and even rookie officials were taking home an average of $78,000 a year. That’s a pretty staggering figure in a country where the average income of all people over the age of 18 is $24,062.

Some of those officials are more widely known than others. Everybody knows Ed Hochuli (Ed Hercules) because he’s built like a stubby football player himself, seems to love the air time and has perfected the art of flex-signaling with his calls. But his notoriety shot up when he blew a whistle that cost the San Diego Chargers the game on what should have been a fumble from then-Broncos QB Jay Cutler.

The notoriety of an official usually grows in direct proportion to the number and magnitude of infamous calls he or she makes. The bigger the moment the official blew a call, the more people will remember that name for the future, and curse it when they hear that official is taking charge of another big game.

But if we can agree for a moment that all officials make mistakes, regardless of sport, how does the NFL compare to other sports around the world? 

The first way they all differ in their officiating is in how many officials they use. The NFL employs a seven-man crew to cover each game. Soccer and rugby still essentially give all of the power to a single referee, assisted by a pair of line judges who rarely stray beyond the realms of a single, unequivocal judgment call: Did the player go over the white line? Was he offside?

Soccer has begun to experiment with additional officials behind the goal mouth, rather than actually embrace the modern world and use technology, but those officials are literally not allowed to call anything unless directly asked by the referee and are ornamental more than anything else.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Rugby, to its credit, has been using a replay system like the NFL for years now, employing a Television Match Official (TMO) to whom tough calls on scoring plays can be referred. Soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, has of course steadfastly refused to introduce any kind of replay system to the game and instead seems content to just live with the odd disastrous decision.

The NBA operates with a three-man crew, with a crew chief and a pair of referees assisting in the calls, and they also employ liberal use of replays, while baseball rolls with a four-man officiating team with three umpires led by a single crew chief.

As makes sense for a game as fast-paced and intricate as football, the NFL has the largest officiating team of any major sport, dividing up the various duties amongst the crew and limiting the number of things any one official has to watch for and call. This is a vitally important part of calling a good game.  The fewer things somebody has to watch for, the less likely it is that that official will badly miss something while watching for something else.

In this area the NFL spotted a potential problem early and got way out ahead of the pack. It’s one of the biggest reasons that game-changing plays still get completely missed by officials in the other major sports on a far more frequent basis.

The NFL got ahead of the game with the number of officials it employs compared to the other sports, but what about the quality of the calls those guys are making?

The league also identified this area as a potential concern and again set about addressing it through minor rules changes. But in this instance I think the league has actually done itself more harm than good.

Mark Nolan/Getty Images

What is interesting about the NFL isn’t so much the quality of its officials compared to other sports, but how it has approached the influence they can have on the game.

In most sports the official is still given license to enforce the rules as he or she sees fit, and the individual attitude and interpretation of the rules of each official can have a massive bearing on the game.

Individual baseball umpires can have different-sized strike zones, a soccer referee can be far more ready to use yellow and red cards than another and the way a rugby referee interprets and referees scrums or the breakdown can completely change the way the game is played and swing the balance of power entirely towards one side or the other.

That doesn’t really happen in football, but why not?

The NFL has systematically tried to remove judgment calls from officiating over the years, to the point where now the biggest problems are the calls that are actually correct by the letter of the law but represent rules that have been twisted beyond their original intent just to avoid the official having to use his own judgment.

Does anybody really believe that Calvin Johnson failed to make a catch on that touchdown that was overturned because on his way up he left the ball on the ground? This is what I’m talking about. 

In days past it was left up to officials to determine what was and wasn’t a catch inside of some guidelines, but over the years the NFL has tried to make hard and fast rules, to the point that we now get decisions like that, because officials simply aren’t allowed to exercise their own common sense.

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You can see the same logic with face-mask penalties. There used to be two varieties: the standard five-yard penalty for grabbing the face mask, as well as the more serious 15-yard penalty for grabbing, twisting and generally trying to make the tackle by the face. But the NFL did away with that because officials had to actually use their judgment to determine whether a play was one or the other.

Same story with defensive pass interference. Tackling a receiver 50 yards downfield to prevent him catching the ball is the same spot foul as far more innocent contact straying over the line. The intent and foul are much different, but the league doesn’t trust officials to use their judgment to separate the two, so we get some game-changing, ticky-tacky calls that can move the ball 50 yards in an instant.

In some ways the NFL is way out ahead of the pack when it comes to officiating, and it’s one of the reasons that any play with replacement officials this year could be such a significant move. But in other ways the league is the architect of its own demise.

With healthy pay and seven-man crews, there is no reason the NFL shouldn’t have the best officiating of any sport on the planet, but instead of embracing that, it ties its hands and systematically tries to remove any and all judgment from the process. Sports are too complicated for that, and there will always be a play that breaks what looked like a flawless black-and-white rule on paper.

Officials need to be given the freedom to use their own judgment and, you know, officiate. In this area the NFL has been shooting itself in the foot and allowing other sports to keep pace.

 

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