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Whistle while you work, NFL referee style



This season has seen three inadvertent whistles (IW) being blown by the officials, with the latest being this past week in the game between the Raiders and Bengals. NFL officials, and officials at all levels, have various tricks of the trade to avoid an IW, with some of the most basic being how they carry their whistle.

A finger whistle

Football officials carry their whistle three ways: either on a lanyard draped around their neck,  a finger whistle, which is a device that fits over two or more fingers with the whistle attached, or on a short lanyard tied to their wrist.  The NFL allows the officials to use all three methods.  Historically, finger whistles have been very popular in the south and east while the lanyard has been popular in the Midwest and west; however those historical norms have become more blurred as time goes by.

Each method has its pros and cons.  Many officials like to use the finger whistle because it takes an extra moment to bring the whistle up to the mouth and the official has to make a concerted effort to do so.  Many officials who use a finger whistle say that extra moment has saved them from an IW.  There are cons to using the finger whistle.  One is that if an official is blowing the whistle and a player hits his arm, the official ends up punching himself in the face and the whistle could damage his teeth.  A ball or player could also hit the finger whistle and injure the official’s hand.  Also, officials have to be wary of one-handed signals.  It looks very sloppy for an official to make a one-armed incomplete, touchdown, or stop-the-clock signal.  Watch old footage of the NFL from the 1960s and ’70s and you will see rampant one-armed signals made by some of the most legendary officials of that era.  Today, finger-whistle officials are taught to give their whistle a few toots, then make their signal.

The official who uses the wrist lanyard uses the same techniques as the official using the finger whistle, except they let the whistle dangle free while handling the ball, etc.

Referee Ron Winter demonstrating proper whistle technique.

Officials who use lanyard whistles can blast the whistle and signal at the same time, and their hands are free and won’t get snagged on a finger whistle.  On the down side, officials who use a lanyard are very tempted to have the whistle in their mouth during a live ball.  That greatly increases the chance of an inadvertent whistle.  Jerry Markbreit, one of the most accomplished officials in the world, always had the whistle in his mouth during a live ball.  It takes a great deal of discipline to have the whistle in one’s mouth and not blow an IW.  Officials are taught to spit out the whistle at the snap and run with the whistle in their hand.  Do you know why Ron Winter wears a lanyard that reaches down to his belt?  It is so he can hold the whistle in his hand and run using full arm strides.  Many other officials are copying Winter’s extra long lanyard.  Another way officials who use lanyards can avoid an IW is to simply let the whistle hang around their neck and blow it only once or twice a game.  Watch the deep officials the next game (side judge, field judge, back judge).  You’ll notice them running with the lanyard flying in the breeze, and when the play becomes dead, they simply signal without a whistle blast. 

Officials have an axiom: “The whistle does not kill the play. The whistle simply announces to all that the ball is already dead.”  Officials have many tricks, techniques, and mechanics to avoid an IW.  That is what makes three high-profile inadvertent whistles in the NFL so disconcerting this season.  The officials have been taught how to avoid the IW, but we’ve seen too many this year.  As I’ve noted before, the inadvertent whistle is a horrifying mistake for an official, and broadcasts to all involved that the official was duped, lost concentration, or used bad mechanics.  And, there is no sure-fire way for an official to carry his whistle that guarantees that he avoids the IW.

Hopefully this rash of inadvertent whistles is an outlier in 2012 and the best officials in the world will keep the air out of their whistles until the ball is truly dead.

Images: Fox40 International, Steve Gonzales/Oakland Raiders

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"