NFL Officials – Fulltime Or Part-Time

I attended the University of Pennsylvania from 1961-1965.  In those days the five major college basketball schools in and around Philadelphia – the Big Five – played virtually all of their home games at The Palestra on Penn’s campus.  In order to fit in so many games with so many schools, there were double-headers every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights and sometimes they threw in a double-header on Wednesday night too.  Over the Christmas break, there used to be a Holiday Festival Tournament which had a double-header in the afternoon followed by another double-header at night.

The reason I point all this out is that in my four years at Penn, I believe I messed a total of six games – – not six-double-headers, six games.  I spent more time in The Palestra than I spent in the library, and it was not even close.

Last week, I learned that I was not alone in my fascination for the place.  John Feinstein wrote a column in the Washington Post about the return of college basketball to The Palestra after a hiatus of more than a calendar year due to COVID-19.  Please take a minute to read Feinstein’s column here.  I still think of The Palestra as “hallowed ground.”

Welcome back from reading Prof. Feinstein’s essay…  Last week, I also read a report that Saints’ coach, Sean Payton, said on Dan Patrick’s radio program that he thought NFL officiating would be improved if the league hired full-time officials.  I also read another report that Seahawks’ coach, Pete Carrol, offered the same view.  I respectfully disagree and here is why.

I have mentioned here before that I spent 37 years of my life officiating basketball; that is not the same as officiating football but there are some fundamental similarities.  In addition, for several years, I was “the instructor” for young officials who were about to find out if they wanted to do this as a hobby or if this was something they preferred not to do at all.  And it is from those experiences – – officiating and trying to help others learn how to be an official – – that I disagree with the idea that full-time officials in the NFL will have a significant positive effect on the “quality” of the officiating.

From mid-August through early February the NFL puts on 65 Exhibition Games, 272 regular season games and 13 playoff games.  Those 350 events are where two things happen:

  1. Officials hone their skills as officials – – and – –
  2. Officials come under scrutiny for “bad calls”.

Outside those 350 events, there are no substitute events for the officials – part time or fulltime – to practice their craft.  “Watching film” can be very effective in teaching the mechanics of officiating – how the officials should position themselves to be able to see what is happening in their area of responsibility on the field.  That is very helpful; I do not mean to downplay it at all.  At the same time, however, an official studying film cannot learn how to get himself/herself into the proper position; all film study can do is to imprint the lesson of where proper positioning is under various circumstances.

So, from mid-February after the Super Bowl is over and the winning team has had their parade until mid-August when the Hall of Fame Exhibition Game happens, there is little to no opportunity for fulltime officials to be doing things that will make them better officials “in the heat of a real game”.  I have heard some folks say that fulltime officials can use that time to study the rulebook.  Obviously, that is the case but most of the complaints about officiating have to do with the calls made by the officials and not about their lack of understanding of the rulebook.

When an NFL official throws a flag for pass interference and half the fans watching the game hate the call, they do not hate it because they believe the official does not know the rules regarding pass interference; those fans hate the call because they saw the action on the field in a different light – – usually a biased light.  If I were given 6 months to study the NFL rulebook, I would be able to “pass the test” on what those rules say an official needs to enforce on the field.  But that does not mean I should be allowed on the field to officiate a real NFL game – – or even a scrimmage.  “Knowing the rules” is absolutely essential for an official to “get it right”; however, “knowing the rules” is not sufficient; a competent official has to practice to learn how to do what the rule book tells him (s)he needs to enforce.

Because the frequency of “errors” by NFL officials that show a complete misinterpretation of the rules  is so rare, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the NFL officials as a whole have sufficiently studied the rule book to the point that they know what it says, what it means, and what it intends.  The “improvements” that are sought by fans and coaches such as Sean Payton and Pete Carrol are  improvements that can only come from having the officials get more live action.  Cue Hamlet here:

“Aye, there’s the rub.”

There is no live action outside those 350 NFL game events summarized above to use as a training ground.  In terms of time on the job that focuses on improving what the officials see and call, the current “part-time officials” have maxed out that time.  So, why hire them fulltime and then try to figure out a way for them to get more “live action” when the only way to do that would be to stage more real games?

Bob Molinaro had this comment in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot on this subject:

“Baseball umpires work every day and still blow calls and miss balls and strikes.”

He is correct and even if the NFL hires fulltime officials, they too will miss calls here and there.  When I was trying to teach young folks how to be a basketball official, I would start my first classroom session with this statement:

“There are two types of officials; those that have made mistakes and those who are just about to make a mistake.  You will make an incorrect call somewhere along the line.  Deal with that; then move on and try not to make another mistake for a while.”

Finally, let me close with this observation by civil rights advocate/activist, William Sloane Coffin:

“I’m not OK, you’re not OK, and that’s OK.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



One thought on “NFL Officials – Fulltime Or Part-Time”

  1. I have nowhere close to your attendance record, but my first game at the Palestra was when I was in junior high school and attended a state tournament game played by my town’s high school team. I announced a few Gettysburg College games broadcast (if you can call a low frequency college campus radio station “broadcasting!”) when we faced Philly teams who shared our membership in the MAC. We were always the first game of the doubleheader, and it was surprising to have more fans rooting for us than the Philly team, because the fans of the “big five teams scheduled for the second game joined together to root against our opponent. I also spent more than a few grad school evenings introducing my friends to the phenomenon known as the big five.
    Thanks for noting Feinstein’s column. It brought back fond memories.

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