Review by Mark Schultz
If you’ve followed Football Zebras for any length of time, you know that we break down football officiating and (hopefully) show you how difficult calling a football game is. Between interpreting complicated rules, avoiding getting run over by people twice their size, tuning out 50,000 people chanting for bad things to happen to them, and explaining why you missed a toe dragging catch by a quarter of an inch to a demanding boss on Monday, NFL officiating is a thankless job.
Enter author Richard Lister. In 2010, Lister got access to the glitterati of NFL officiating and wrote a book The Third Team. The book successfully answered the question fans ask every week, “Who are these guys?”
In 2021, Lister is back with his second book on NFL officiating entitled A Tough Job Made Harder: Football Officiating in an Unforgiving World. This book goes a step beyond his first book, and breaks down the challenges facing 21st century officiating from the NFL on down. Lister covers the gamut — scrutiny, accountability, the role of instant replay, recruiting officials, recruiting women and minorities and, most importantly, retaining officials who are just starting out at the Pop Warner and high school junior varsity levels.
Lister relies on experience and opinion from current and former NFL officials and supervisors. The author solicits information and opinions from Dean Blandino, Mike Pereira, Terry McAulay, Jeff Triplette, Mark Baltz, Jerry Markbreit, Bill Carollo, Shawn Smith and Jeff Bergman to name a few.
The book talks to officials about the arduous process it takes to get to the Division I college level, let alone the process it takes to get a look from the NFL. Lister also talks to college supervisors and others about the push to recruit minorities and women into the officiating ranks. Sarah Thomas is profiled and Amanda Sauer-Cook tells her story.
The author tells some juicy (to officials, at least) tidbits, too. A whole chapter is devoted to the infamous 2012 labor dispute, and those involved give inside information as to what went down — from direct disrespect from the NFL to the union working hard to keep the rank-and-file united.
The book talks quite a bit about accountability. Several officials have direct and pointed opinions about the firing of Hugo Cruz, although Cruz (who is back officiating college football) is not mentioned by name. Triplette has a very interesting take on accountability as it relates to Cruz and the 2018 call that almost broke the Football Zebras website. (The Cruz story did knock us offline a few times that day.)
Yes, Lister talks instant replay. While a great tool for objective calls (in or out of bounds), just about every person interviewed for Lister’s book is skeptical that instant replay is the silver bullet for judgement calls. There are some very interesting takes by the officials interviewed. While all agree that instant replay is great to “get it right,” one former supervisor laments letting the replay genie out of the bottle.
Lister has Periera, Carollo, Blandino and McAulay discuss college instant replay, college officiating in general and how the NCAA zebras can increase their skills.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, at least to amateur officials, is the discussion about recruiting and retaining officials who are just getting their start in officiating. The first challenge is to get officials to stick with it when they get paid 50 dollars to travel a half-hour away, only to get screamed at by coaches and chased to their car by a bunch of parents. At some point they’ll realize they can deliver pizza or sweep floors for 50 dollars and keep their sanity. There is a second, perhaps more interesting challenge. Say an official in their 20s survives the first two years and has NFL aspirations. They get frustrated that they aren’t in the Big 10 or SEC by the time they’re 32, which means they won’t make it to the NFL by age 35, so they quit. Lister and his subjects have excellent thoughts on recruiting and retaining officials.
I recommend A Tough Job Made Harder, for active officials, armchair officials and fans of officiating. Hopefully the reader come away with an appreciation of just how hard officials at all levels work to get it right, how hard the job actually is, and how much the game desperately needs the next generation to put on the striped shirt.
Heck, maybe you might even want to join the brotherhood and sisterhood of officiating! If one person reads Lister’s book and starts officiating, the book will be a resounding success.
Editor’s note: Football Zebras was provided with an advance copy of the book.