Referee Tony Corrente celebrates his 70th birthday on November 12. In his 27th season, he is in small company of officials who were on the field into their 70s. Down judge Mike Spanier, who retired after the 2019 season, was 70 in his final season. And there aren’t likely many more officials who were able to accomplish that.
While we don’t have complete records of officials’ working ages, especially pre World War II, we can reasonably assert that lifespan, physical fitness and attitudes about age at the time most likely prevented an official working at age 70.
As recently as 40 years ago, officiating at age 70 was a laughable idea, but several factors have gone into official longevity.
55 used to be the magic number
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was an unwritten attitude to have officials retire around age 55. In fact, several college conferences and Major League Baseball made 55 a mandatory retirement age for referees and umpires. If you see an official from that time period with a 10- or 12-year career, he might have been forced to retire due to age.
Thanks, Ben Dreith
As the 1980s commenced, the NFL started to pressure its officials to retire if their age began with a six. The NFL tried to get Ben Dreith to retire and when the referee refused, they moved him from referee to line judge — a position he never worked. After one year at line judge, the NFL terminated Dreith for poor grades.
Dreith sued the NFL in 1991 for age discrimination. He accused the league of grading him poorly and pressuring him to retire because he was 65 years old. During the discovery process for the trial, it was revealed that Dreith actually graded better than some of his younger colleagues. Dreith and the NFL settled out of court for $165,000, and he retired after a single season at line judge, his 31st in the league.
After Dreith’s successful litigation, officials Jack Fette and Fred Silva also brought suit against the NFL for the same reason. They asserted that the NFL graded officials over age 60 more harshly than their younger co-workers. Both officials split a cash settlement.
Now age is just a number
After Dreith’s successful lawsuit, all pro and college leagues dropped mandatory retirement ages and did not terminate employment because of age. Many officials in pro basketball, baseball and football now work into their late 60s, with some NBA officials working past age 70.
In fact, referee Land Clark was hired into the NFL in his mid-50s, whereas two generations ago, he would be been pressured to retire at that age.
It’s not just successful lawsuits that allow officials to call games at an older age. Officials are dedicated to physical fitness and nutrition programs in order to stay on the field. Advances in orthopedic medicine allow ligament and joint repairs that would have been career-ending in the 1980s. In fact, Garth DeFelice officiated most of his 16-year NFL career on two artificial knees.
That doesn’t mean that officials can cruise. They are still graded on accuracy of calls, mechanics and rules knowledge. If an official can’t keep up physically or mentally with the job, it will start to show up in missed calls. Jerry Markbreit talked frankly about it in his book Last Call: Memoirs of a NFL Referee. He determined that 1998 would be his last season and he hoped to finish up with a Super Bowl assignment. But, he said it was one of his poorest seasons ever. Even though he was assigned a playoff game, the film showed him missing calls he used to “nail in my sleep.”
As officials put in 20- to 30-year careers, they have many people and modern medicine to thank for being able to work on the field.