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Football Zebras > 2014 > NFL and the referees’ union want grades confidential…until they don’t

NFL and the referees’ union want grades confidential…until they don’t


Commentary by Mark Schultz

The NFL season has gotten off to a contentious start between the front office and the NFL Referees Association, the union representing the on-field and replay officials.   The NFLRA has accused the league of throwing the game officials under the bus publicly while supporting their calls privately.   This controversy has even trickled down to the college football level, where Pacific-12 Conference supervisor of officiating (and NFL referee), Tony Corrente, recently resigned his college position.   Reports suggest that Corrente felt the Pac-12 didn’t give enough support to its officials.   In all cases, an official’s job performance has come under scrutiny, which historically has been a tense situation between a league, its officials, and the public.

During the first seven decades of the NFL, the officiating office operated in a publicity vacuum.   As TV began to shine its light on the officials and the calls they made, the officiating department, lead by Art McNally, adopted a “never complain, never explain” philosophy when the media wanted to know answers to judgement calls.   Right or wrong, there rarely was any comment from McNally.   Sometimes even when an answer affirming the call could have helped the officials   there was no comment.   This practice, including not commenting to the media even when the call was right, continued under McNally’s successor, Jerry Seeman.

“Transparency” is the buzzword in the 21st century, and in 2001, Mike Pereira, opened the windows of the NFL officiating offices, allowing the media unprecedented access to the officiating department.   The vice president for officiating was willing to discuss tough judgement calls.   He was quick to praise officials when they made a correct call and he was also willing to admit it when the crew made a mistake.   It must have been nice for the officials to finally get public backing for some of their tough calls, but I’m sure it wasn’t fun to have the boss affirm an outraged fan base by declaring another call wrong.

So, where do transparency and job evaluation meet and where should the NFL and the officials draw the curtain to the outside world?   The NFLRA has always been very protective of their members when it comes to making grades public.   This includes the ranking of officials for playoff games as well as grades for an individual call.   I don’t blame them for wanting to keep grades under wraps.   Think of it.   How would you like your annual job evaluation to be posted on your company’s website for all to see?   This can happen to NFL officials on any given week.   On the flip side, the fans, whose dollars (and eyeballs fixed on the TV every Sunday), keep the NFL afloat want to know what the NFL is doing to make sure their team is being given a fair chance each weekend.   Today’s fan (and journalist) would not stand for the silence that came from McNally or Seeman in years past.

The NFL, in wanting to display the best, most transparent face, of the league to the public has been very upfront about stating its opinion about controversial calls this year.   This has incensed the NFLRA, especially after they contend that the NFL was critical of the officials in public, but in private did not downgrade the calls in question.   The officials’ union was so upset about the situation, that it broke its long-held tenant and went public about an officials individual grades. The war of news releases got so heated that Pereira, usually an ally of the officials, called out the NFLRA for going public with its grievances.

Football Zebras has reached out to the NFL and the NFLRA this season for comment regarding this controversy.   The NFL has twice declined to comment and the officials’ union has not responded to requests for comment.

It seems like both the NFL and the NFLRA want it both ways.   The NFL wants to criticize an official about a call, (including one with politically correct connotations) yet not have the public privy to the grade actually given to the official.   The NFLRA doesn’t want anyone to know   the officials’ grades – until they decide that they have to protect their membership.

As an amateur official, my sympathies almost always lie with the men in the stripes; however this time, both sides need to cool it.

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Mark Schultz
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?"

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6 thoughts on “NFL and the referees’ union want grades confidential…until they don’t

  1. I don’t think we need to know their grades. But I do think the NFL must be consistent about supporting or downgrading calls in to the public and the officials. As a fan who is far from an officiating expert, I know they’re human and will make mistakes, especially on close and tricky plays. My concern is that the element of human error is minimized as much as possible, that it has as little of an impact on individual games and on the season as possible, and that the game still keeps an entertaining pace. I don’t get really angry until one team is repeatedly penalized for things the other team is getting away with (eg. Bills v. Patriots), and I don’t know if grading takes that sort of thing into account. But then, there are biases within the NFL about how the big money teams are treated compared to the smaller market teams. (I’m not talking a big conspiracy, but you can’t look at the headlines on on any given day and tell me the Patriots don’t get ridiculous levels of hype compared to, say, the Vikings or Cardinals or Bills.) And it’s not fair to penalize the officials if that mentality is seeping into how they are graded.

    So, I just blame the NFL if games are badly officiated. It’s the league’s job to choose and manage the officials, so if the officials’ performance is negatively affecting my enjoyment of games, I blame the league. I love the explanations of calls, whether on the field or afterward, and feel a lot better when I can see why an official made a particular mistake. But it’s all the NFL’s responsibility in the end.

  2. I would like to see some kind of fine system in place for the refs. The more calls that they get wrong fhe fines increasing. The officials are clearly the weak link of the league. My opinion.

  3. This is one of the MANY problems of unions in the US today. There are WAY more negatives than positives to them today. For the amount of money they demanded (not earned) in the last lock out, AND the terrible officiating that has occurred since then, they SHOULD make public their grades. If you can’t stand the criticism, quit! There are plenty of outstanding officials who would LOVE to be critiqued and judged for $7,000-12,000 a game. Sounds like the refs.just want to be stroked for making what really amount to basic calls, yet not called to task when they screw up BASIC calls. Again, you want to make $10,000 a game (like many of them do), plus a pension, plus benefits, plus travel for a PART-TIME job, then do the job right and take the criticism like “a man” and don’t do it again. NFL officials, office workers, custodians, firemen, and my profession (teacher) you name it….ANY job should have reviews and critiques made public. Instead of complaining about public postings, perhaps it would make workers in this country pay more attention to doing their job the right way rather than complaining.

  4. I believe the fault is 100% with the league. Come along on a thought experiment with me where we will attempt to remove the human element.

    Imagine if rather than human officials all the players and the entire field were covered in cameras and sensors, and that this data was fed into a computer that could detect penalties. It is my belief that this scenario would result in a penalty on almost every single play. Probably multiple penalties on most plays. I believe that if every infraction was flagged it would make the game unplayable. I can’t imagine a better way to demonstrate that there are currently too many rules.

    Add in that many of these rules are very subjective and open to interpretation, and I do not believe that the game can be called fairly in its current state. The most you can hope for is that the junk, impossible to officiate rules impact each team in a similar manner. Unfortunately it’s impossible to know how much this is affecting games, and the season.

  5. Make the grades public and make officials accountable for their bad calls and bias. Blandino and company are unfairly calling games against the Seahawks and in favor of their opponents this year and I would like to know why. Where is the honesty and integrity of the officials when calling Seahawks games. If their grades were made public we would know. Maybe the NFLRA should be more concernedabout the eithics and honesty of their officials than whetehr or not their grades are made public. How many ofther teams have had four touch downs (game making touch downs) called back this season? Answer, only the Seahawks. How many teams have been allowed to get away with penalties (evidence is on the taped replays) they have charged the Seahawks for? Answer every team the Seahawks have played. Someone needs to hold Refereees accountable for thier bias and obviously one sided game calls and if the refs association and the head of the refs were really concerned about honesty they would back grades and a program of ehtics and honesty. You can be sure that the refs will call the game on week 8 against the Seahawks and for their opponents just watch and see it will be a one sided game for penalties in favor of the Seahwks opponents. Why isn’t there an agency that will keep the refs honest?

  6. I concur with Jim Kissinger it is very upsetting as a fan to see your team get 15 penalties while the other team only gets 3 when while watching the game you see the other team getting away with holding in the open field right in front of the refs or PI right in front of the refs this has got to stop or it will cause a great number of fans to stop watching all together which means all their money they spend during the year will stop trickling in the refs need to be held accountable for their actions and if this is the NFL that is doing it they too need to be held accountable we need an out side source to over see them and watch games and see how many games are one sided during games it is very upsetting to say the least

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