When you think of the NFL and football, what do you think about? You probably think about a highly-intense, hard-hitting and overall fun game. Maybe you also think about giant contracts, endorsements, and all the flashy things. That’s what I do, too. Generally, our thoughts are positive, right? Besides the heartache you might feel when your team loses on Sunday or a player you like gets hurt, you’re having a good time during the season.
Now think about what you know about NFL officials. It’s probably all negative, right? These are the guys that won’t just let the players play. These are guys that make the NFL the “No Fun League.” These are the guys that cost your team a regular season game or, even worse, a playoff loss. How much of the game do you spend yelling at the official on your TV? I would imagine it’s a lot.
But what do we really know about these guys? For most, it’s next to nothing. I get it. It’s not the flashiest job in the world. We never seem to even talk about these guys unless we’re analyzing a really bad call or using them as the scapegoat after our team’s loss.
This just wasn’t good enough for me. I set out a few years ago to tell the human stories about the NFL. I’ve spent all this time talking to players and completely ignoring everyone else who’s on the field. Today we stop looking at the players, and we take a deep look into what it’s like to be an NFL official.
To get answers, we enlisted former NFL VP of Officiating and current Fox Sports analyst Dean Blandino. Detroit Lions fans might remember Blandino from their nightmares and possibly the worst moment of their fandom. Oh, you don’t remember? Let me refresh your memories.
No, Blandino wasn’t responsible for that call, but at the time, he was overseeing all NFL officials. He would later apologize to Detroit, and in recent years he’s become something of a friend to Lions fans. Always willing to go on a podcast or even do an interview with Pride Of Detroit.
What Dean told us about the job was not at all what I was expecting. Here’s a real look at what it’s like to be an NFL official.
This is not an easy job to get
Right off the bat it has to be known that you can’t just submit your resume via Monster.com or something and become an NFL official. According to Blandino, it’s a very long vetting system that includes much more than just your performance on the field.
“I don’t know if many people really understand what goes into it when the NFL, when they’re considering hiring officials,” Blandino said. “This official has been scouted for years throughout their college career there. There’s Regional Scouts that are around the country that go and watch officials work games, and they create reports, and then you kind of monitor those officials and their progress.
“Once an official gets to the highest level, they’ll become a part of the officiating development program. And so that’s a program that maybe 25-30 officials are there. They come to the NFL officiating Clinic they might work a preseason game and they’ll get to spend time with NFL officiating crews, go to mini camps, OTAs and training camps to get kind of that feel for the NFL.”
That’s just part of vetting process. At this point, prospective officials only have half their foot in the door. Once they’ve completed and been approved from the development program, they have to go through a full background check that not only includes a criminal history check, but a look into their financial background, too. There’s also a full psychological exam and and a medical exam.
Pass all of that, and you have a chance to make it in the NFL. According to Blandino, even after you do all this and everything checks out fine, you’re still not actually hired yet. All told, the process takes a few months.
Needless to say, the NFL is hiring who they deem to be the best of the best. While NFL fans may think the officials are incompetent at times, these guys were the guys that made it through a very difficult system.
After you’ve been hired, you’re added to a team of officials. Each team has nine officials: Seven on the field and two in replay. The NFL does not just throw you on any team that needs a guy, though. There’s more to it than that.
“That relationship when you’re putting a crew together, you’re not just looking at how they perform on the field,” Blandino said. “You’re thinking about personalities, how they interact with each other and communicate, because you’re [together] for four preseason weeks and then 17 regular season weeks, then potentially postseason. You’re together a lot of times Friday, Saturday, Sunday and could be a Thursday night game. You’re together during the week, communicating during the week. And so those relationships, the more positive it is, the better your performance will be on the field. You deal with people you know in all of our professions. If we don’t have positive relationships that can impact our performance.”
A lot of time on the road
Officials are given their assignments four weeks out. The officials are then in charge of setting up their travel arrangements. The league is partnered with American Express and they help the officials work out those plans. This includes hotels as well. The NFL has contracts with hotels in every NFL city.
The NFL also provides a per diem to officials for food, car rental, parking at the airport and parking at stadiums or city streets. All of this is set up in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. So in terms of finances and arrangements, NFL officials are set up pretty well.
But while the officials are not full time, they might as well be. A typical week for an official is a seven-day-a-week thing. Officials will usually arrive in their game’s city on Friday and won’t leave till Sunday night or Monday morning depending on what time the game is at. Then they spend the rest of the week on conference calls, going through their video of the previous game, and then studying up on their next game. It’s a very involved job. According to Blandino, some officials have other jobs, but spend way more time doing this than that.
With all the hard work and the constant traveling, it can be hard on an official’s home life.
“It’s really hard,” Blandino said. “You talk to a lot of officials on the things that they miss out on. So many family events, whether it’s [the] biggest things, like birth of a child potentially to little league and graduations. All of these things that people in other professions may get to experience, officials sometimes lose out on because football season you’re dealing with—you don’t get to a lot of times celebrate Thanksgiving because you might be working or Christmas. Those fall and winter holidays are different than somebody else in another profession. So it is a major challenge to create that balance.”
It sucks being the bad guy
We’ve all yelled at officials—whether it be from your couch or at the stadium. Covering high school and college sports I can tell you it’s definitely happening there too. Being the enemy is not fun and it can take a toll on you. With no satisfaction of victory, like the players, officials are just there to do a thankless job.
“In officiating, you don’t have those wins and losses,” Blandino said. “You’re more just trying to avoid mistakes, and it’s not an environment where you’re getting a lot of positive reinforcement. And, for the most part, everything you do is critiqued and scrutinize to such a degree, and there’s always going to be some group of people regardless of what the call is. And the call could be absolutely correct, and some people aren’t going to like it and they’re going to think it’s wrong.”
These mistakes aren’t victimless crimes. It’s not always about a win or loss. Sometimes an official making a mistake can cost someone else, whether it be a player or a coach, their job.
“I know one official that was involved in a controversial call going back and missed the call, and it cost the team of game,” Blandino said. “Ultimately, the coaching staff got fired and and [the official] went into a depression and put it on himself, started drinking, just not taking care of himself.”
It’s hard to completely blame the officials. The system the crews use sometimes sets them up to fail. It’s important to remember that these guys don’t see what we see on TV.
“The reality is that they get one look at it on the field in real time,” Blandino said. “Then we get the benefit of all these replays, and we get to scrutinize them based on information that they don’t really even have. That’s the hard part. But it’s that’s the nature of the business and everybody that goes into officiating understands that they don’t go in thinking that they’re going to get a lot of pats on the back.”
From a fan standpoint, the truth is that a lot of calls lead to anger. American sports fans are an incredibly passionate bunch of people. That passion has sadly led to some hideous things when it comes to officials. Whether it be cyber bullying, death threats or much worse—fans finding out where officials live and throwing bricks through their windows or having their cars vandalized, two things Blandino said has happened to NFL officials.
Thankfully, the NFL has some protections in place. No official will ever work a game in the city they live in, protecting them from potentially livid fans in their own backyard. The league also has security set up for the officials to report things like death threats and fans throwing bricks through their windows. But all the security in the world doesn’t protect you from being a human being with feelings.
Luckily for officials, Blandino says it’s tight knit group of people that look out for each other and help each other get through these types of situations. If you’ve long believed that these guys don’t care, those beliefs are wrong. Nobody likes to make mistakes, especially mistakes that can hurt the job security of someone else or even make fans feel unhappy. This is a very stressful job.
How the mistakes stop?
The mistakes will likely never stop. According to Blandino, the game is too fast. The officials simply don’t have the same view of the game that fans at home or the stadium do. They simply only have what’s in their line of sight. Sure, they will go to the video on big things or refer to the New York office for even bigger things, but on simple calls like holding or hands to the face, there are always going to be missed calls or bad calls. You just can’t see everything down there.
Dean says there are always things in the works to alleviate the bad or missed calls as well as the stress on officials. One thing that’s being discussed is the addition of a sky judge. This would be an extra official in the box who has a full field view, as well as access to video replay. They can communicate with the officials on the field with what they saw and potentially change poor calls.
The NFL is also not just allowing officials who make plenty of mistakes to keep making those mistakes without being held accountable. Like any job, officials are being graded for their performance every week. As a matter of fact, they’re being graded on every single play. The performance is then evaluated by the NFL, and if the score is poor enough, officials could face what's called a downgrade.
The NFL places officials into three different tiers. That top tier means that you get to work the playoffs. Working the playoffs obviously means more money. If the review board believes you’ve made a bad call, you can be downgraded to the next tier. You can also be upgraded if you make a really tough, but correct call too. If you make enough bad calls you’ll be downgraded out of your job.
I hope that after you read this you come away with a different point of view on NFL officials or officials in general. This is not an easy job. There’s a lot of negativity there. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be emotional about the sport and your team. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t be emotional about the calls on the field. But maybe keep in mind that these are human beings that feel all the same ways you do but have way more eyes and a lot of pressure on them at all times. Maybe it’s time we all understand that this is not an easy job.