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Officiating brawls in 1983 very different than 2023

Let’s throwback to 1983 when referee Fred Silva and crew had to sort out a Mark Gastineau vs. the Los Angeles Rams brawl.



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Football is a game fueled by emotion. But, players and coaches need to control those emotions. Sometimes those emotions get out of control and a big fight happens. Recently I viewed a 40-year old brawl and noticed a lot of different mechanics in quelling a near-riot and handing out penalties.

In Week 4 of the 1983 season, the Los Angeles Rams paid a visit to Shea Stadium to play the New York Jets. The Jets had a pass rusher by the name of Mark Gastineau. He was the 1980s first flamboyant defender, going into wild gyrations when he sacked the quarterback. Many opponents took umbrage to Gastineau’s histrionics and the pass rusher was a target of resentment. The Rams had the Jets pass rusher in their crosshairs when they visited Shea Stadium.

The officiating crew that day was was referee Fred Silva, umpire Tom Hensley, head linesman Norm Kragseth, line judge Bob Beeks, back judge Pete Liske, side judge Dave Parry and field judge Don Orr.

Well, that afternoon in 1983, Gastineau got a quarterback sack and went into his celebration. The Rams Jackie Slater was tired of Gastineau’s antics and pushed him. The Rams then decided to give Gastineau a beating and the brawl was on.

There are a lot of interesting things to unpack in this clip.

First of all, someone messed up Silva’s number placard. Back then I guess Silva or the NFL decided to live with it instead of correcting it. That would never happen today. The NFL would get Silva a replacement ASAP.

You have to look closely, but you can see Silva working a finger whistle mechanic. One of the dangers of using a finger whistle is that during a fight the whistle could get snagged in the melee and hurt the official’s fingers. In a long shot of the fracas, you see Silva take the finger whistle off his hand and put it in his pocket as he is running to break up the fight.

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After the fight died down, Silva gathered all of his crew together. He polled each one to make sure there were no extra fouls or something worthy of an ejection. Something also to note. During the entire maelstrom, Don Orr didn’t help break things up. He stayed with the dead ball spot. No matter how many crazy things happen on the field, someone always needs to stay with the spot. You can see Silva ask Orr if he has any penalties to report and you can see Orr shake his head “no.”

No numbers?

After all the pushing, shoving, hitting, tackling, showboating and coming off the bench, I was ready for Silva to announce a laundry list of penalized players. Nope. Silva announced “unsportsmanlike conduct this way and this way between downs, and that’s it.”


Back in 1983 there was no automatic disqualification for a player who picks up two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls. Today, the officiating crew has to be meticulous in reporting numbers of every player who fouled. The official scorers want to know. TV wants to know. And most importantly, the officials need to know since the guilty players have one foot out the door with an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. Also, the NFL will issue fines to the penalized players, so the list is important.

Today the referee gets the all fouls from all the officials and writes the numbers down and reads from a card, or another official stands off camera and shouts out the fouls and numbers of penalized players.

Seriously, that was showing up the opponent?

Yes, Gastineau was a hot dog and loved the “look at me” demonstrations. But, knowing what was to come in the 1980s and 90s and, frankly, what is allowed today, Gastineau’s act is pretty tame. There was no taunting, no showing up the Rams, just a bunch of showing off.

It took several rules changes, different interpretations, different points of emphasis and enduring the “No Fun League” before we have the taunting, excessive celebration and unsportsmanlike conduct rules of today.

40-years ago this fall, Fred Silva and his crew had to put out a three-alarm fire at Shea Stadium. By the rules and mechanics of the day his crew handled it well. Today, there are many more steps to officiating, breaking up and penalizing a brawl.

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?"