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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.

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?"