A Former NFL Player's Guide to Interacting with and Influencing Refs

Stephen WhiteFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2012

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 09:  Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers protests a call with umpire Gerald Wright on a pass reception by wide receiver Eric Decker #87 of the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 9, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Steelers 31-19. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I can tell you from experience as a former NFL player, dealing with referees is always a tricky business. When they get a call wrong, of course you want to yell and scream at them and call them every bad name in the book, especially in the high emotion of a game. At the same time, they are human; you have to understand that the more you berate them, the more they will likely tune you out.

That's counterproductive if you want them to eventually make favorable calls for you and your team. You definitely don't want to cross the line where they are just looking to find a reason to throw a flag on you either.

Back when I was playing, I would often try to clearly state my complaint without being overly disrespectful. Yes, at times we all would get loud with the refs, but we tried to keep that to a minimum. Freaking out on the refs after every play never worked out well anyway back then.

What you really wanted was for them to at least acknowledge your complaint and for them to tell you they would pay closer attention. It wasn't always easy even getting them to talk to you, however.

To overcome this, we would sometimes try to butter the refs up by exchanging warm pleasantries before the game. I'd even try to strike up a non-football conversation during any break in the action, just to try to get them talking. I thought if I could get them to start responding to me about anything, then they might also respond later when I told them my opponent was holding me every play.

After all, as any old defensive lineman will tell you, we are held every play.

I always knew going into any game that the chances of influencing the refs were generally slim. It was that outside chance that they might take heed of one of my complaints and throw a flag that motivated me to keep trying. 

If I were still playing today with the replacement refs, my mindset would totally change. They know just like we do that they are probably on borrowed time. Those refs don't want to screw anything up with a huge stadium full of people as well as millions at home watching on TV. I'm sure they read the papers and realize that their every move is under the microscope, so I would have to try to use that to my advantage.

After watching the first regular-season games over the past week and weekend, I don't think most players tried hard enough to influence the replacement refs. I see defensive linemen being held, wide receivers being interfered with—all sorts of calls were missed and met with barely a peep from the players on the field.

It seems they are extending a lot more respect to these officials than their performance has come close to warranting so far.

With all that has been said and written about the replacement refs' performance so far, I have to believe many of them are full of self doubt. Can you imagine the kind of stuff that is running through their heads after every play?

"Was I supposed to make that call?"

"Did I blow my whistle too early?"

"Am I sure that I know all the rules?"

"Are they going to laugh at me on ESPN after the game?"

With all that pressure on their shoulders, why wouldn't you try to get them to see things your way?

Who knows, maybe a few of them will be able to tune out all of the doubters as well as the players and coaches, but there's no way all of them will be able to. What does a player lose by trying to intimidate these refs into making a favorable call anyway?

I can't think of a single thing. 

I'm not saying players have to be disrespectful toward the replacement refs, but I would definitely be a lot more forceful with them. I don't know anyone who believes they will be around for the whole season, so the players need to take advantage while they can.