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Football Zebras
HistoryThrowback to one of the most annoying rules to officiate: the crowd noise rule

Throwback to one of the most annoying rules to officiate: the crowd noise rule

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No doubt about it. A noisy home crowd gives the home team an amazing advantage. Crowd noise is celebrated in Seattle, and many other NFL stadia. I’m sure there’s many an official who has had to take a headache powder after a three-hour roar has left them with ringing ears.

Loud crowds frustrated quarterbacks in the 1980s

As the decade of the 1980s dawned, crowd noise became more and more of an issue for visiting teams. Quarterbacks started refusing to call the play when the crowd became too noisy. The following clip of the late Red Cashion having to deal with a migraine-inducing crowd noise issue in the Orange Bowl in 1981 is a good example.

As head coaches Don Shula and Dick Vermeil both screamed for a penalty on the other, Cashion had no penalty to enforce and no way to make the crowd be quiet. The rule at the time:

The following situations are automatic Referee’s time outs: … Obvious inability to hear team signals. When such situations prevail, the following official player techniques should be adhered to:

a) offensive team quarterback should hold both hands above his head for quiet.

b) the Referee to signal Referee time out if the crowd does not respond immediately so that in the opinion of the Referee, offensive players (other than flankers and split ends) may hear their signals.

c) the clock operator to stop the game clock.

d) the clock operator to stop timing 30-second count.

e) clock starts on snap.

In 1989, the NFL tried to regulate crowd noise and give the visiting team a chance to call the offensive plays in a hostile atmosphere, by passing a crowd noise rule.

It was a flop.

The crowd noise rule

Found in Rule 4, it stated that if the home crowd made it difficult for the visiting team to call a play, the referee would stop the clock and:

  • Warn the crowd about excessive noise and ask the players on the field to encourage the crowd to tone it down.
  • If repeated, warn the crowd a second time and ask the players on the field to encourage the crowd to tone it down. The referee would also advise the crowd that further excessive noise would result in a charged timeout to the home team.
  • On a third violation, charge the home team with a timeout.
  • On subsequent excessive noise violations, charge the home team with a timeout.
  • If the home team was out of timeouts, penalize the home team for delay of game.

The officials took a hard line in the 1989 preseason, strictly enforcing the crowd noise rule. Referee Dick Jorgensen penalized the Indianapolis Colts for excessive crowd noise in a Sept. 2, 1989, pre-season game, and didn’t stop until the Colts received two delay of game penalties.

The rule helped make the NFL the “No Fun League”

This rule was very hard to officiate. How much noise was too much noise? Talk about a subjective call for a referee!

The rule also made the referee look like a substitute teacher.

Some visiting quarterbacks, like Ron Jaworski and Neil O’Donnell in the clips above, would claim to not be able to hear until it was library-quiet. Fans, smelling blood in the water, yelled even more trying to help the home town heroes.

Also, when was the last time fans listened to, respected and obeyed a referee’s polite request to hush?

In short, the rule made the officials look silly, and only served to whip up crowds even more.

What an annoying, can’t-win rule for the referee!

The visiting team is now on their own

Enforcement of the rule waned, and finally in 2007, the NFL did away with the crowd noise rule. Today, with scripted plays, radio communication between coach and quarterback. and silent counts, visiting teams have learned to cope with the noise.

NFL football is one of the most emotional games played, and home crowd noise plays a large factor in the home-field advantage. For eight games a year, pro football teams have to steel themselves to a hostile audience and work through the cacophony.

And the officiating crew doesn’t have to use a decibel-counter to try and figure out how much noise is too much noise.

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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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