I vividly remember the first time I found out that NFL referees had day jobs. I was probably nine or 10 years old, watching football in the basement with my dad and the dog. My dad was explaining the rules to me and answering my questions — each team has four chances to get the ball to a certain place, that guy is special because he decides what plays to run, yes, it does hurt when you get hit, no, that guy can’t grab that other guy’s face mask, and no, you can’t have a third pack of Gushers because it’s almost time for dinner. We talked about the refs, too. He told me the men in striped shirts traveled to officiate games because they were usually lawyers or businessmen during the week.
“Hold the phone,” I remember thinking. “The referees, the people who decide whether that guy did or didn’t grab that guy’s face mask, who hold the difference between wins and losses in their whistle-bearing hands, have other jobs?”
Seventeen years later, I still think that it’s kind of insane that until this week the NFL hadn’t put plans in place to hire full-time referees. It’s not like the league is short on cash, or doesn’t have any qualified applicants, or hasn’t gotten the green light from HR. Sure, they don’t need these people full-time, exactly, when you only have football games on certain days and there are so many refs. But with the proliferation of games across the week and even continents, officiating games and traveling from city to city probably resembles a full-time job more than it did when Thursday Night Football or the International Series weren’t things (I think both programs are garbage, but that’s a different issue).
As Ryan Van Bibber wrote, making officiating positions full-time might not fix the numerous errors we’ve seen this season. These are humans, after all, and devoting more hours to the job might not necessarily make snap decisions more likely to be correct. It’s about optics. The NFL has to do something when it has players saying things like “I’m sick and tired of the reffing in this league,” as Brian Robison did after the Vikings’ Thursday night game against the Cowboys.
But you know what? I’m kind of bummed about full-time refs. One of my favorite quirky intricacies about the NFL (of which there seem to be fewer and fewer as the league appears to be doing everything it can to suck the joy out of the viewing experience) is that refs like Ed Hochuli are people you might go to if you got into a business dispute and need to sue, say, a rival cable provider in Arizona. Or maybe you need help managing your money in Kansas City, so you call Mark Hittner at his financial services company. Or maybe you really just need some milk, so you hit up Walt Coleman, who is the sixth-generation operator at his family business, Hiland Dairy, and also used to head up the Arkansas Dairy Products Association.
Isn’t that delightful and bizarre? Imagine if you went to the doctor and your doctor was like, “Listen, we have to make a really tough call as to whether you actually need this medication or not,” and you were like, “Yeah, totally, I trust you, Doc.” And then you found out that your doctor spent the majority of their time being, say, a dog walker. You’d be like, “Whoa, are you sure you’re good at being a doctor?” And she’d be like “Yes, trust me, I do this every weekend.”
I know, I know, this is different. While football is also a life and death situation in terms of importance, there’s only so much football to officiate. But maybe if you bring in full-time refs, you could make them watch film on the off-days or something and it would make them better. I don’t know. All I’m saying is that going full-time is probably a really good idea. And it’s also a buzzkill because I won’t get to regale my dad with obscure information about each ref’s day job as I eat guacamole and yell at the television about their terrible calls.