In 1975, the NFL decided to put a wireless microphone on the referee for penalty announcements. Officiating boss Art McNally, wanted the officials to use this new technology very sparingly. In those intervening 38 years, the microphone has evolved into a critical communication and teaching tool, as shown by Gene Steratore’s epic mini-rules clinic in Week 6 (video):
The ruling on the field is that we did have a completed pass. During that, the receiver was injured. An injury inside of one minute carries an automatic timeout to the team with the injury. Green Bay is out of timeouts, which would be their fourth timeout. By rule, that would carry a ten-second runoff as well. But, due to the fact that we have a personal foul/unnecessary roughness after the play on the offense, number 77, the ten-second runoff will not occur. There will be a 15-yard penalty against Green Bay, penalized from the end of the run. It will be 1st and 10, Green Bay. Would the game clock operator please put 25 seconds on the game clock, 25 seconds on the game clock, please. Thank you.
In the 1970s and ’80s the referee only used the microphone for penalty announcements – and even then the information was spare. The referee would simply state the foul, number of the offender, and the next down. No fuss, frivolity, or fanfare. The fan got to know the referee in those 5- to 10-word announcements during the game. I always enjoyed the overtime coin toss or a game clock malfunction because the referee would then have to make longer announcements and thus sound like a human being instead of a robot.
Things changed starting with Ben Dreith’s famous penalty call in 1986. Dreith later spoke of the call on NFL Films’ In Their Own Words segment. He said that the hit on the Bills’ Jim Kelly wasn’t too late, but the extra shots drew the foul. Dreith explained it in a call that will live forever. Also in 1986, instant replay was born and the referee had to make expanded instant replay announcements. Two years later, in 1988, referee Jim Tunney used his microphone during the Fog Bowl to reset the down, distance, yard line, and even time after every play for the benefit of the fans, TV audience, and official statisticians (video).
As the 1990s began, a second generation of referees, who had seen the mic in use, began to use the communication device to their advantage. The first time I can recall a referee using the microphone to his advantage and explain a complex ruling happened on Thanksgiving Day, 1993, when Ed Hochuli (who else?!) explained the complicated “Leon Lett play” (video). It soon became clear that if a referee was well-spoken and well-versed in the rules, he could use the microphone to explain complex rules to skeptical announcers and a stadium full of fans.
When instant replay returned in 1999, the NFL wanted the referees to explain the original call, explain what he saw on replay, and explain what was going to happen next after the replay ruling. Former referees like Norm Schachter and Cal Lepore must have been amazed at the new generation of avuncular referees!
Today, a prerequisite to being a good referee is the ability to speak on the microphone and explain the complicated rules to the fans in the stadium those watching on TV. When the referee explains the call, that tips off the TV producer to search for the proper instant replay to show to the fans. Also with an increasingly complicated rule book, the referee needs to explain why time has to be added to or taken off of the clock, why a spectacular catch is actually not a catch, and why a player injury necessitates a team timeout, to name just a few complicated rules.
So, while we might smirk and sometimes roll our eyes at long referee announcements, think about how confused you might be during a game if the referee wasn’t there to explain what was going on down on the field.