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NFL100: When the referee had to rule on things other than football

Usually, a NFL game goes off like a well-oiled machine. The players, coaches, fans, support staff, visual effects, broadcasters and infrastructure all work together to make the game the best show in town. But, sometimes, things can go wrong.



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Usually, a NFL game goes off like a well-oiled machine. The players, coaches, fans, support staff, visual effects, broadcasters and infrastructure all work together to make the game the best show in town.

But, sometimes, things happen: circuits overload, pyrotechnics tip over, fans get too drunk, and tornadoes threaten the stadium. In those instances, the referee has to work with the commissioner’s “designated person” (essentially a high-ranking league executive in charge at the game site), home-team management, and the coaches to make sure the show goes on.

Power outages

This, by far, is the most common mishap during a NFL game. Usually a squirrel got into a transformer, a circuit arched or there was a power surge. The biggest power outage happened in Super Bowl XLVII. Usually, there is a 10 to 20 minute delay as everything reboots.

But, sometimes the game goes on with some makeshift operations.

There was one unique game in 2008, where the Chargers and host Bills played “the quiet game.”

Fan behavior

In the past few years, fan behavior has improved. But the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and aughts saw some sketchy fan behavior.

When it snows, heaven help everyone on the field. A stream of icy snowballs invaded the last game of a lackluster 1995 season at Giants Stadium when the San Diego Chargers visited. While fans were told that there was a threat of a forfeit, there actually was not. Val Pinchbeck, an NFL executive in the broadcasting and scheduling wings, was the commissioner’s designee that day and was in contact with commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The commissioner said the game had to continue, because the Chargers were still in the playoff picture, so terminating the game was a competitive imbalance.

Referee Ron Blum was in contact with Pinchbeck, who authorized Blum to halt the game if it became absolutely necessary until security could gain control, including emptying part or all of the stands. Ultimately, they did not, and Blum hastily finished the game.

Back in the 1970s, there was an unfortunate fad of fans setting off fireworks in the middle of a game. It got downright scary in 1979 when a Seattle fan threw what sounded like a cherry bomb onto the Kingdome turf.

Can you imagine the panic and instant live news coverage if a similar incident happened today?

In 2002, the Philadelphia Eagles played the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. During the game, there was some type of disturbance behind the Eagles’ visiting bench. Someone sprayed pepper spray and the substance went into the “cool zone” misting fans. Suddenly Eagles players, coaches and sideline personnel came off the bench with their eyes burning and coughing and gagging.

Referee Bob McElwee suspended play while Washington security investigated. This happened one year after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare, so everyone was on edge. Once McElwee conferred with security and was satisfied it was safe and the players had recovered from getting maced, he announced that “it is now safe to resume play.”

Perhaps the most infamous fan behavior incident happened in Week 4 of 1989, when the Cleveland Browns played the Denver Broncos. The fans in the “Dawg Pound” peppered John Elway with debris. After a battery landed near referee Tom Dooley, he took action.

Cleveland fans instigated a similar incident in 1978, and we all know about the dreaded “Bottlegate.”

While some may find flying debris funny, it is a danger for everyone.

And, sometimes fans let loose animals onto the field. From black cats to … turkeys?!

These days with security cameras in every nook and cranny of NFL stadiums and franchise bans to anyone who acts up, fan interruptions are thankfully becoming more rare.

Do you have a burn permit?

The pregame has gone from simple marching bands to a pyrotechnic spectacular. But, sometimes things get a little out of hand.

And, sometimes the pyrotechnics in the rafters get a little hot.

After the fire is out, we can smile about it. But rest assured, fire in a crowded stadium haunts event managers in their nightmares. When a potentially serious event like a fire happens, the referee has the authority to pause the action and wait for the danger to pass. The referee also consults with the grounds crew about potential damage to the field and any repairs necessary. He will then consult with the commissioner’s representative and each team about proceeding safely.


The NFL has the authority to reschedule a contest or move the start time if bad weather (blizzard or hurricane) is forecast. But, sometimes bad weather blows up over the field or the NFL decides to tough it out.

The most fun foul-weather game to watch (at least from the comfort of home) is a snowstorm game. The NFL has a very specific gameday manual that tells the grounds crew when, where and how they can clear the big yard lines so the teams and officials have some frame of reference. Don’t worry, there are strict rules that prevent the home team from an unfair advantage.

What is less fun is the extreme cold weather game. Again, the NFL will do all it can to get the game in on time. I can’t recall a game that was suspended or rescheduled due to extreme cold. The NFL makes sure all game-day personnel have enough protective gear to wear to prevent frostbite. 

The biggest weather event that the officials have to watch out for is lightning. When lightning strikes, the referee suspends play and orders teams to the locker room. Stadium management also evacuates the stands and fans take refuge in the concourse. The game has to conclude and the NFL will do all it can to make sure the game runs a full 60 minutes.

Perhaps the most dangerous regular-season weather delay happened in November of 2013 when severe weather hit Chicago and the area went under a tornado watch and then a warning. After the first wave of weather went through, a line of thunderstorms continued to roll over Soldier Field and delayed the game for several hours. The game started at noon and finally finished, in overtime, as the late games were winding up.

When weather threatens, the commissioner’s representative alerts the referee like it did with referee Gene Steratore (photo above) during the 2013 tornado warning. The rules for the referee are simple when lightning or tornadoes threaten: stop play and direct teams to the locker room until the lightning leaves the area. Each member of the crew will note the game time of the stoppage and the status of both clocks, the spot of the ball and position between the hashmarks, and the down and distance. There is no hard call to make. The referee, teams and fans simply have to wait for Mother Nature to have the last word.

Once the weather clears up, the referee allows both teams a warm-up period and then resumes play from the point of suspension.

In stadiums that have retractable roofs, the decision on whether the roof is open or not is made by the home team 90 minutes before kickoff to the referee. (For wild card and divisional playoffs, the league will refer to a team’s or stadium operator’s written policies; for conference championships and the Super Bowl, it is a commissioner’s or designee’s decision.) Once the roof position is set prior to team warmups, it cannot be changed, except that it may be closed if there is rain or dangerous wind. There are specific “ground rules” that apply as to how the retractable roof is handled in these situations. To date, there has never been a situation where a retractable roof was closed after the roof was set, except for two instances at Super Bowls, confined to pregame and halftime. In all cases where there has been a chance of inclement weather, teams have opted to keep the roof closed.

The most bizarre weather-related game happened over 30 years ago when the Bears and Eagles played in The Fog Bowl. Referee Jim Tunney consulted with the commissioner’s representative and head coaches Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan about continuing in a thick pea-soup fog. After getting input from all parties (who agreed to keep playing), Tunney ruled that the game would continue in the foggy conditions. The game procedures for lightning or snow didn’t help Tunney that day.

While the NFL tries to have a contingency for every conceivable situation, as you can see, sometimes the referee and the NFL have to set a precedent and make a new call.

For the officiating crew, safety and fair play trump everything else.

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?"