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Punishments for a ‘fast public-relations fix’ do not improve officiating




Commentary by Mark Schultz

I have had a lot of thoughts going through my mind as the football season nears the halfway point. Fan reaction to tough judgement calls or admitted errors on various message boards — including our forum, Behind the Football Stripes — have summoned overheated calls for the termination of individual officials to the termination of vice president for officiating, Dean Blandino. The NFL has responded by keeping an official home for a weekend and switching an official off of a national TV game after a controversial call. While it may serve as an emotional pacifier to tantrum-throwing fans, it does not improve officiating.

Former NFL referee Scott Green opined in USA Today that the NFL is thinking of public relations first and professional development second when issuing consequences to NFL officials. Green was at the forefront with interactions between the league office and the officials in his capacity as the president of the National Football League Referees’ Association, a position he stepped down from upon his retirement in 2013. Green said,

The League is predictably handling the issue no differently than the others that characterize Commissioner Roger Goodell’s regime: arbitrary punishment of an individual for a fast public relations fix. It’s a reactive approach that may give some short-term satisfaction to one team’s fans, but it doesn’t address improvement.

Green has a point. If an official is docked a game’s pay or if he or she sits at home over the weekend getting their proverbial nose rubbed in the error, how does that make a better official? The official knew to watch the clock or apply the proper replay rules, but instead they messed up. Do you think a suspension will cause them to say, “Boy, I sure learned my lesson. I won’t do that again”? The official already knows they made an error. They already feel like they let the game, their boss and their fellow officials down. Fans don’t believe it but it is true — no one feels worse about making a mistake than the officials.

Instead of a suspension hanging over an official, I agree with Green; the NFL should put more energy into training individual officials and address and an official’s deficiency through positive education instead of punishment. Blandino’s office should pick the official up, dust them off, and work with them to improve. If an official doesn’t show progress, or if their skills start to erode below acceptable standards, the NFL can then make a change.

All a game fine or suspension does is throw a bone to the fans and make them think the NFL is being proactive. In the meantime, morale plummets and officials don’t improve.

Green’s editorial provided another interesting nugget. Green criticized Dean Blandino for passing judgement on NFL officials without having any officiating experience. This is a marked contrast to a mere three seasons ago when Blandino was hired and an official commented to Football Zebras, “Dean has grown up in officiating [in a replay capacity]. He has earned the respect of most of the officials. He is a fair guy, and I am optimistic he will do a great job in the position.”

Between Green’s commentary and public consequences given to the officials, it seems like morale is low in the officiating department. The pressure is on Blandino and commissioner Roger Goodell to rally the zebras and inspire them to excellence. 

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?"