Will having full-time NFL officials make any difference?

NFL officials are again in the cross-hairs of fans, media, and pretty much anybody else that watch football. On Sunday, Packers’ wide receiver Greg Jennings fumbled the football, at least according to most interpretations of the slow-motion replay (including mine). It wasn’t called a fumble on the field, and after video review, it still wasn’t called a fumble. Green Bay went on to score a touchdown. Fortunately for the New York Giants, the play had no effect on the game’s outcome — the G-Men stomped the Pack, ending Green Bay’s stellar season.

Whether or not to have NFL officials as full-time employees of the league has been a recurring subject of debate over the last several years, particularly since the advent of high-quality television replays that allow the average fan to determine if the officials are making the correct calls. The NFL is the only major sports league in the U.S. to have part-time officials, mainly due to the relatively low number of games in a season (compared with baseball, basketball, and hockey).

Remember the pay dispute between the league and the officials’ union back in 2001? The NFL hired over a hundred temporary referees to fill the gap caused by the officials’ strike. Each of the replacements were paid $8,000 for a guaranteed four weeks. Up until that strike, NFL game officials were making anywhere between $25,000 and $70,000 per season on a part-time basis. In 2007, that salary range was reported to be from $40,000 to $120,000.

Pretty good part-time job money.

Yesterday, the NFL announced that the problem of inconsistent quality in game officiating might be addressed by making a few (about 10) officials full-time employees. The idea is that these full-timers would be brought to New York to help review game films and evaluate all calls. Then, they would be spread out among the game crews every week.

This sounds like a band-aid approach. And, it might prove to be a bad idea, too.

First, if you had a few, or perhaps all, officials as full-time employees, what kind of evaluation system would be put in place to fire those that are poor performers? The release of full-time employees would require the league to show cause, and that could be a source of battles involving the unions, lawyers, and the like. Perhaps the answer lies in whatever the NBA, NHL, and MLB are doing in this regard.

Second, many officials hold down fairly stable, lucrative jobs, and they referee for the enjoyment (as well as the pretty-good second-job money). Thus, it is plausible to think that some, if not many qualified officials would not want to leave their first careers.

Officials in all sports have always been the subject of criticism from the general public. The perceived increase in the public scrutiny and criticism of late is likely due to the steady enhancement in the quality of video technology that we fans are privileged to witness every week. The increasing number of camera angles, the increasingly ‘slowness’ of video replay technology, and the clarity of high-definition television allow us to be able to make increasingly accurate evaluations of the referees’ calls that are made at real-time speed. Thus, we demand ‘accurate’ officiating.

Is having full-time officials going to make a significant improvement in ‘getting the calls right’? I think probably not. What can improve the situation is having more plays deemed reviewable, and taking the video replay responsibilities away from the on-field officials and put in the lap of officials located either in the press box or at league headquarters (as is done in the NHL).

More stoppage of play to review a controversial call isn’t going to hurt the flow of the game anymore than it already is. In fact, I dare say that most fans enjoy the process — it is almost as if the fan is brought in as a game-show participant, a witness to the process. And, making the interpretations of video replay needs to be done in the relative calm of a setting different than that of under a hood on the field of battle.

The NFL’s recent announcement is likely nothing more than a giant pacifier for the critics at large who are becoming less tolerant of the human element in game officiating.

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2 responses to “Will having full-time NFL officials make any difference?”

  1. tk says :

    the accuracy of a call by a human being without the aid of replays etc. WILL NOT change simply because the human being is a full time versus a part time employee. will the official make more accurate decisions because he knows he is a full time employee………this border on the ridiculous to me.
    as we advance in technology the game will be forced to change like many other things in our world. i just hate that the human element disappears with this advancement in technology. sometimes a week long discussion of “could you believe the call that ref made?” is more interesting than many games themselves. but time marches on!………..and by the way, go niners!!!!!

  2. norcalvol says :

    TK, I find your comment about the human element — and the idea of the public debate of a controversial call as interesting — quite amazing because it is EXACTLY the same argument used by the head of soccer’s international organization (FIFA). In soccer, there is an international clamor for ‘goal line technology’ – either electronic devices or video replay to ensure that calls on whether or not a goal is scored are correct. When FIFA came out with the line that ‘we think the doubt created by the human element, and the public debate about borderline calls, are healthy for the game because it gets people talking about the game’, nearly everybody thought FIFA as utterly out of touch. But because you can see this in football, it causes me to rethink FIFA’s position.
    Thanks for the comment.

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