Football Zebras exclusive
In a stunning move, the NFL has fired down judge Hugo Cruz, number 94, effective immediately, which has been confirmed by 7 sources who have firsthand knowledge of the situation.
This is the first time in the Super Bowl era that the NFL has fired an official in the middle of the regular season. Previously, the NFL has suspended officials for major mistakes and, if warranted, dropped the official in the offseason. Others had their fate sealed early in the season, but completed the rest of the year, as had happened to a rookie official who fell asleep during a preseason clinic. (He never saw a second season.)
The NFL Referees Association vowed to fight the termination. “The NFL has a troubling history of knee-jerk reactions with an eye on public relations, and clearly it has not learned from past mistakes,” said Scott Green, executive director of the NFLRA in an e-mail to Football Zebras . “The NFLRA will protect the collectively bargained rights of all officials and will challenge this reckless decision through the Grievance process.”
An NFL spokesman declined to comment.
One of the sources confirmed that Cruz was not “maintaining a very high level of performance over a sustained period,” while another told Football Zebras in March that Cruz’s future with the league was already in jeopardy. This is partially borne out by his lack of postseason assignments for the two seasons he would have qualified for, not counting assignment as an alternate last season. Another oddity that our sources could not find a reason for was that Cruz was assigned to a different crew for 3 of the 6 regular season games he has worked this year. He was assigned to Brad Allen’s crew in Week 6 when a crucial missed false start call should have nullified a Chargers touchdown (or, more accurately, the play would have been shut down long before that).
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) October 14, 2018
Even though the miscall was very significant, no call on its own would prompt a firing. Basic human resources training would tell you that there is a document trail of transgressions that will make the case. It is, apparently, the last straw for senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron. Cruz was off last week, so the Week 6 Chargers-Browns game was his last.
As surprising as a midseason firing is, any firing for that matter is a rare occurrence. Although there are cases of officials seemingly coerced into retirement, mostly to manage turnover, there have been very few outright terminations. In the last 10 years, one official was dismissed for an undisclosed off-field issue, and another was dismissed due to performance following a crucial error in the season finale. That’s it. Notably, the NFL attempted to terminate 8 officials due to performance issues in 2003; the NFLRA was able to successfully get most of them rehired or assigned to the replay booth.
But one source said, as surprising as the move is, when an official does not perform well “there are consequences, which can include termination of employment.”
Cruz’s ascension to the NFL happened almost as quickly as his downfall. Before joining the NFL in 2015, Cruz was recruited by former NFL referee Gerry Austin, who is the head of football officiating for Conference USA. Cruz worked for 6 seasons, where he was assigned to 2 bowl games, a conference championship game, and 2 East-West Shrine games. The NFL brought him in as a preseason development official in the first 2 seasons the program existed, leading to his hire the following season. He is the second official to have left the NFL after entering the league through the development program; classmate Ed Walker retired during the last offseason due to an injury.
Cruz has also worked as a minor league baseball umpire.
Referee Carl Cheffers will now have a vacancy on his crew which can be handled in one or more of these ways: (1) Line judge Mike Spanier is a swing official this season, which means he is placed on a different crew or wherever needed, and occasionally substitutes as a down judge. Spanier could finish out the season on Cheffers’ crew. (2) With multiple teams on bye weeks now, more officials are drawing bye weeks. A down judge or line judge could work during their regularly scheduled off week. (3) An official can work a Thursday night game and a Sunday or Monday game in the same week.
This week, Cheffers’ crew coincidentally has the Browns, who were on defense for that touchdown play. Spanier will work as down judge on the crew this week, according to a source.
We began this season saying that Riveron needed a good season for job security. Unless the decision came from his superiors, Riveron is sending a clear message to the staff by taking such an unprecedented step and not waiting until the end of the season.
Image: Oakland Raiders photo