One of the Week 2 highlights was a 102-yard kickoff return by C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills. What was hardly noticed on the play was a dangerous situation in which side judge Rick Patterson collided with a member of the Bills staff and took a hard fall (bottom of this video). The Bills were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for interfering with Patterson’s ability to officiate the play.
The NFL has given its officials rules and tools to make sure the sidelines stay clear. The rules state that all non-players and substitutes have to stay out of the white belt along the sideline during a live ball. If anyone not wearing stripes is in that belt, the officials may (but are not required to) first issue a warning to the team, then after that it is a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. If an official collides with someone along the sidelines during play, they are permitted to flag the sideline for unsportsmanlike conduct, which is what Patterson did. Last year, field judge Barry Anderson and line judge Jeff Bergman had to bring out their flags to get the Oakland Raiders to back up and give them room on the sideline (video).
Safety is the driving force behind the rules to keep the sidelines free of everyone except the officials during play. During long plays, officials are running at top speed and if a coach or player happens to step in the official’s path, the collision can be devastating, not only for the official, but for the person on the sideline.
The officials want the sidelines clear not only for safety but also for fair play. There have been high profile incidents in the past few years involving Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in one game and the New York Jets in another game, where unsportsmanlike actions along the sideline have given teams an unfair advantage.
The sidelines can be an intense, exciting and sometimes dangerous place to be during a football game. When officials flag the sideline for “being in the white” during a play, they are not being killjoys, they are trying to make the sideline a safe and fair place to work.