NFL Refs are just like you. No seriously, they have other jobs and everything
Lost in all the often scathing comments about NFL referees is the fact that after they leave the stadium they have to pick up the 3rd shift at Taco Bell. Yes, that’s right, despite being a 9 billion dollar league the NFL has yet to employ full time referees. In a fabulous piece over at The Classical, David Roth explains why this is pretty reprehensible even by NFL standards. What spurred this most recent discussion is the NFL’s stalemate with the referee’s union and subsequent announcement that they’re already looking for replacement refs.
Whatever abstract, throwback-y charm there might be to entrusting things on the field all those pillars of their respective professional communities, it remains strange in the extreme that this hugely profitable league remains dedicated to permalance-ing its rule enforcement; of all the places in which the NFL could realize efficiencies or maximize profits or whatever barf-o bizspeak you prefer, outsourcing on-field credibility would seem to be a uniquely short-sighted and poor one. “The NFL already is the most powerful league in America,” Monte Poole writes in the San Jose Mercury News. “If it truly wishes to exhibit a deeper devotion to excellence—and a genuine commitment to player safety—it has a very convenient opportunity. Join MLB, the NBA and the NHL. Offer officiating not as a hobby but as a career.” That seems simple and wise enough, but it is difficult to imagine it coming to pass, if only because it is too transparently reasonable and forward-thinking to appeal to the people involved with the NFL.
Roth notes that before the last agreement in 2001 referee salaries were under 20K. The new agreement raised the salaries to 29K. Today, salaries range from 42K to 120K — certainly that’s not a small amount for a job that is technically part time–but still paltry compared to what their counterparts in other leagues are paid.
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While it’s true that NFL refs call less games and travel less than other refs, it’s also true that they’re tasked with understanding a more complicated game and navigating a more intricate set of game politics. Now referees are not only tasked with calling–but not overcalling–illegal hits they are asked to flag guys for suspected concussions. And because there are less games in an NFL season than other leagues every decision NFL refs make is doubly, perhaps triply, more consequential to the team on the losing end of a bad call. The pressure is high for NFL refs given the stakes and the speed of the modern game.
I have no idea if the current crop of refs would like to quit their full time gigs as lawyers and other professionals–the taco bell line was an obvious joke. But it’s time to make NFL refereeing a career path that allows those folks to perfect their crafts and feel valued while doing it.