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January 17, 2003

by Bill Hogan


Yea, I know. NFL referees are easy pickens these days. Everyone with a two-bit opinion has something to say about how lousy the playoff officiating has been. I'm not normally one to jump on a media bandwagon, but here's my quarter's worth.

The Sunday after the Super Bowl, every major newspaper classified section should feature a full page ad that reads: Help Wanted. 119 full-time positions available to all qualified applicants. Must be able-bodied and intelligent, possess adept hand-eye coordination, have the ability to make snap decisions under extreme pressure and accept criticism graciously. Excellent eyesight and hearing a plus.


In light of the recent high profile officiating gaffes, and the higher profile admission by NFL executives that something has to be done league-wide to improve - if not eliminate - such gaffes, sportswriters, sportscasters and sportsfans have all weighed in on the subject.

The most heated debate seems to be whether or not NFL officials should be full-time employees of the league. Sports Illustrated football analyst Peter King made his position clear when he wrote "Is there any guarantee that a full-time employee would have thrown a flag for pass interference when 49ers defensive end Chike Okeafor dragged [Giants lineman turned receiver] Seubert down?... Would being on staff with full dental benefits and two weeks vacation have changed anything?"

The singular answer to both of King's (rhetorical) questions is obvious: OF COURSE!

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that a full-time employee is going to be more proficient as a back judge than, say, a brain surgeon moonlighting as a back judge.

"Hmmm, did I remove all the surgical sponges from Mr. Thompson's head on Fri…oh shoot, they snapped the ball already – dang that two-minute offense!"

How many times do you think one official or another has missed an obvious call because he was preoccupied with what's going on with his "real" job? "Hey Ed, how'd you blow that holding call in the third quarter?" "Well, you see, I'm giving a big presentation to the Board of Directors on Monday and the slide show I'm preparing on my laptop keeps crashing."

"And that's more important than a playoff game, Ed?" "Hey, it's my real job! Besides, I only took this officiating gig so Martha and I can afford that summer cottage up by the lake."

Being on staff with full dental benefits and two weeks vacation may not have changed anything, Mr. King, but it would have given the official a better opportunity to make the correct call.

As full-time employees, the NFL would be better able to require and enforce a more exacting physical standard for all officials. Frankly, most of these men are too old, too fat and too slow to keep up with today's game.

There are 300 pound linemen that are faster than Franco Harris in his prime. It's a different game now and most officials can't get out of their own way – let alone a pulling guard that runs a 4.5 forty.

How is a 55-year-old man with a bum knee and a heart murmur supposed to keep up with Randy Moss sprinting down the sideline? Today more than ever the men in stripped shirts need quickness and agility resembling Derrick Brooks – not Mel Brooks.

The physically challenged (and by that I mean there's no way in hell they can move fast enough to avoid taking a Brett Favre bullet off the noggin) need to be weeded out and replaced.

The game has become too fast. And the outcome has become way too important.

And twenty minutes on a treadmill strapped to a heart monitor shouldn't be the extent of a physical exam. Take 'em out to Junction, Texas every summer for a couple of weeks of two-a-days. Those left standing will have earned a full-time officiating contract.

I know it sounds callous, but if football players are over-the-hill at forty, there isn't any reason to believe that football officials – running along side the best athletes the game has ever seen - can perform at peak levels much beyond that.

I'm sure the NFL doesn't want this situation to deteriorate to the point where – every time an official blows a call at the end of a game – common public perception is that the guy in the white hat and stripped shirt has a plane he must catch because he's already used up all of his sick days.


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