When the league that would become the NFL was founded in 1920, there were only three officials: the referee, the umpire, and the linesman — the origin of the crew of three goes back decades earlier. Occasionally, there were assistant linesmen (who were not permitted to rule on anything, but essentially aided the linesman’s call), which lead to the term head linesman being introduced. In 1965, the NFL added the line judge.
Now, 52 years later, the position is getting a new name in the NFL: down judge, a term not used at any level of football. The NFL has moved Sarah Thomas, the league’s first permanent female official, from the line judge to the mirror position, and the new name is now gender neutral.
The change was very subtle, as it was an item first reported by Albert Breer of The MMQB about three-quarters of the way down his column. When Football Zebras published the crews earlier this week, the DJ designation was present in our source material, but we could not confirm the new position name with our sources. This apparently wasn’t widely known to the officiating staff.
The NFL Football Operations website has made no announcement, but has done a find-and-replace to include the down judge. Despite that new information, the site still has Dean Blandino listed as senior vice-president of officiating.
In addition, the position formerly known as “head linesman” will be called “down judge” beginning this season to more accurately depict the primary responsibility of the role — ensuring the correct down and distance — as well as to eliminate the gender-based classification of the position.
I get the idea behind the name change. The NFL has multiple outreach initiatives to be more inclusive in the front offices and at the field level in officials and coaches. They have also had to atone for its lack of sensitivity to domestic violence incidents. For once, the league has been able to be proactive, rather than reactive, in this area.
However, the move does have an unintended consequence of focusing attention on the female official. In her rookie season, of course, it was expected that the attention would be on Thomas, as it should have been. However, changing all the nomenclature around does have a practical effect of singling out one official yet again. Perhaps a term that retains the HL abbreviation could have been used to phase in a little more subtly.
Unless the NCAA follows suit, an official like Maia Chaka, who is in the NFL’s development pool, will still have an H on the back of her jersey for head linesman.
Above: excerpt from the 1906 college football rulebook when the chains were introduced; top: San Francisco 49ers photo.