SI Vault
William O. Johnson
October 09, 1978
NFL officials have routinely botched up games this season with quick whistles and questionable calls, but Pete Rozelle insists that his men get them right 95% of the time. Tell that to Minnesota Coach Bud Grant
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October 09, 1978

It's Open Season On The Zebras

NFL officials have routinely botched up games this season with quick whistles and questionable calls, but Pete Rozelle insists that his men get them right 95% of the time. Tell that to Minnesota Coach Bud Grant

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It is likely that the idea of full-time officials (as baseball, basketball and hockey have) will be discussed at the owners' March meetings. Rozelle is open-minded but skeptical. "The economics aren't really a problem," he says. "The league is in better shape that way than ever. Our annual budget for officiating is approximately $2 million. Full-time officials would double or triple that. The major problem with going full time is that we would lose many of our best men. All of them have other jobs, and only a few would want to give them up, I'm afraid, for full-time officiating. Beyond that, I don't know how much better they'd be. You could train them over and over, every day, every week, and certainly you would eliminate some mistakes and maybe develop their reflexes. But how do you train a guy to see over a 250-pound man? I'm not sure you could ever train them out of all mistakes. Football players train all week long. And they make mistakes."

Still, some of the best minds in football, including Bud Grant, Al Davis and Dallas Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm, argue that only more intensive recruiting, tougher training in camps with the teams, better conditioning, perhaps even a year-round University of Referees—a permanent training facility—can bring the kind of quantum improvements necessary in NFL officiating. Tommy Bell argues that the present system is about as foolproof as it can be. However, he also thinks a couple of rules ought to be changed to help officials—and also protect the quarterbacks. "If the passer drops back in the pocket," Bell says, "he should be given the same protection as a punter. And they ought to change the intentional-grounding rule. So many quarterbacks hold on to the ball to keep from getting a 10-yard penalty, and they get hurt. Let them dump it with a loss of down but no yardage."

There are 100 officials in the NFL today. "Most of them are in sales or education," McNally says, "and they average 48 years of age, with 24 years or so of officiating experience. No man can work in the NFL with less than 10 years of experience. Oh, we wouldn't insist on that much if some ex-players offered to officiate, but they just don't seem to want to. We have seven former players. I think most people feel it's a comedown to be a player, then have to go back to officiating high school or college games before they can work the NFL. We get about 120 applications each season, and we test them, interview them, grade them—and we hire about six. This year we have 16 new men because of the new seventh official." McNally says that not one of the disputed calls this season has been made by a new official.

At the beginning of the season, each official must take a 175-question, open rule-book examination. Each week during the season, the officials take additional written tests. They are expected to be in good condition and to take a physical and an eye test before the season. But the only way their condition is tested by the NFL office after that is by the monitoring of their weight twice a year. As for disciplinary action after a blown call: perhaps a reprimand by phone from McNally or, at worst, the loss of game assignments. No angry commissioner's fines such as players, coaches and owners sometimes draw? "Not working a game or two works as a fine in itself," says Rozelle.

Depending on seniority, officials are paid from $325 to $800 for a regular-season game, more for postseason contests—up to $3,000 for the Super Bowl. A veteran who worked every possible game at top scale would receive $23,000 a year. Besides the actual officiating of the game, the job calls for each team of officials (they become part of a permanent crew after the second preseason game) to arrive in the game city on Saturday afternoon. They then spend about three hours in a skull session, reviewing films and going over critique sheets (based on extensive critical scrutiny of films by McNally and his staff) of the game they worked the week before. On Sunday morning they meet to discuss the specific characteristics and strategies of the teams in the game they will officiate. "Always the discussion has to be positive," says McNally. "I will not abide negative comments—such as saying So-and-so holds a lot, watch for it, or Such-and-such had four penalties for being offside last week. I jump right down their throats if I hear that they discuss players negatively."

At the game itself, the officials' work is under scrutiny by special NFL full-field-coverage cameras, as well as by network cameras. Not only are they graded by an on-site observer and, on Monday, by McNally's film critics, but they also get ratings and complaints (or praise) from the coach of each team.

So why is the nation in the throes of zebra flu? Why has Bud Grant's stone face gone molten? Has the whole system broken down for good? No, probably not. But neither is there a cure-all for this malady that is in the autumn air; it came with the franchise. To err is human, to forgive is divine, but to complain about officiating is football—now, then and forever.

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