NFL Fans Still Losing with Return of Officials

The NFL officials returned but are still part-time employees.

Jordan Raanan, Xfinity Sports, NFL Columnist
Fri Sep 28, 6:21 PM UTC

The officials are back! The officials are back! Get excited.

The zebras we've grown to hate and now we love were on the field for the first time Thursday night in Baltimore after being locked out the first three weeks of the season. For a few minutes at least, NFL fans sat around their proverbial tailgates, drank beer and sang Kumbaya.

It was like in 'Bronx Tale' right before they clipped Sonny. Just about everyone had big smiling faces. All of a sudden, out of all the smiling faces, there was this one face. And this one face wasn't smiling.

That one face is mine, and it's because I'm greedy. Like everybody else, I'm glad the NFL officials are back. But I want them back as full-time employees who spend all their energy during the season studying and preparing for games and all their time in the offseason training, studying, improving and grooming the next generation of officials. NFL fans deserve better than to have them studying for that week's game in between preparing somebody's taxes and balancing their books.

Under the new deal completed Thursday the current officials will remain part-time employees, most with other professions and incomes. The NFL has the option to hire a limited number of full-time officials beginning in 2013 to increase the talent base and provide support on and off the field. The key word there is "limited," presumably in single digits.

"Some of the things that we are now going to be able to focus on in a positive way – like full-time officials on a limited basis, like having a resource or developmental pool of officials – will allow us to train, improve officiating, and do the things that are going to be necessary to limit those mistakes, because they do happen," commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Limiting the mistakes is the goal. The best and most logical way to achieve that goal would seem to be with full-time officials who work at their craft year-round.

Having all the officials full-time shouldn't be too much to ask for when the average officials salary was a touch under $150,000 last season. It's not too much to ask when their importance to the game was never more obvious than when the replacements were on the field.

It was clearer than ever during the lockout that the best possible officials are needed in the NFL. The replacements weren't qualified to officiate an NFL game. They couldn't handle the speed of the game, scrutiny or the rules. And it all concluded on Monday night in Seattle when they made a mockery of the league with their incompetence.

Really, it wasn't their fault. They were unqualified officials thrown into an impossible job, one where even the best in the world regularly fall on their faces.

Goodell, as per his job, took a lot of heat for the highly-publicized debacle. He's the front man for the teams, owners and league. He's also the easy target for my short-sighted media brethren and fans.

But I'm different than most (understatement of the year). I'm a long-term thinker. I commend Goodell and the league for staying strong. In fact, I believe they should have held out longer, demanded more, done everything in their power to ensure fans get the best officials working at 100 percent capacity. That's not possible when they have side gigs. What's better: a few more weeks of replacement officials or seven-plus years of fully dedicated zebras putting every last drop of time and energy into being the best they can possibly be at their job?

For a while, for the first three weeks of the season, the NFL was actually doing the right thing. If only for a minute, Goodell was looking out for the best interest of the league long-term. That's what leaves me thoroughly unsatisfied with the new eight-year labor agreement between the league and its officials. The league didn't do enough to give the fans what they deserve—the best product possible.

In the short-term, bringing the officials back is good for the on-field product. It would be even better if the real officials weren't only slightly better than the replacements.

You don't need to look too hard or too far to see some of the blunders. Referee Bill Leavy admitted last year that he corked several calls in Super Bowl XL. Then there is the infamous Phil Luckett coin toss where a simple heads or tails call was botched. Even "The Catch II" (Terrell Owens' classic TD catch) should have never happened. Jerry Rice clearly fumbled several plays prior but was ruled down by the officials.

These are just the most recent and famous of the muffed calls. Look hard enough and you can find officiating miscues in every game in NFL history. Mistakes are not the problem. There will never be a fool-proof system. Perfection is impossible, but at the very least, the NFL—a multi-billion dollar business—owes its fans full-time decision-makers contributing to the outcome of games.

Right now, that's not the case. Most, if not all, have other jobs occupying their time in season and out. There are accountants, lawyers, dentists and corporate executives. Obviously, these other professions take time and effort. Look, I've worked multiple jobs simultaneously most of my professional career and can tell you that inevitably you're robbing Peter to pay Paul. It's impossible to max out your potential when there are multiple jobs tugging at your 24-hour time frame.

The NFL's better than this. Its game officials—whose average salary will reach over $200,000 when this new deal expires—need to be committed 100 percent. That means studying film, filing mandatory paperwork and reviewing rules during the season. It means training, studying, learning new rules and teaching young aspiring officials in the offseason.

Right now, NFL officials are obligated to attend a clinic or two and a meeting here or there in the offseason. They're sent rule changes to absorb and take a test. For me, that's not enough. For the fans that pay to see a top-notch product, that should not be enough.

The NFL made their intentions loud and clear with these negotiations. They were looking to change the pension plan and agreed to increase salaries. They got both—kind of. But most importantly, they were looking to eventually make officiating a full-time gig and create a deeper pool of officials that would allow them to increase accountability.

"We’ve discussed getting to the point of full-time officiating," Goodell said.

The problem right now is the past precedent. With many of the officials already double dipping into two incomes, the NFL would have to pony up millions in order to avoid losing some of their best guys. They should have done this now. Again, a short-term loss is sometimes worth the long-term gain. That is the case here.

Everybody who watches this great game deserves an entire stable of full-time officials. The players deserve it. The coaches deserve it. And maybe most of all, the referees deserve it. After watching the replacements threaten the integrity of the game their importance has never been so obvious.

Jordan Raanan has covered the NFL since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @JordanRaanan, on Facebook or email him at

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.