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Why the NFL renamed the ‘head linesman’ the ‘down judge’

NFL head of officiating Al Riveron saw something inconsistent with the title and started working to change it three years ago.

Tennessee Titans v Minnesota Vikings
The down judge is responsible for coordinating the chains throughout the game, though all officials are involved in measurements.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It was a couple years ago that Al Riveron decided the name of the “head linesman” had to go.

Riveron, then NFL senior director of officiating and former NFL referee, was at an August scrimmage watching, among others, a young woman in the NFL’s officiating developmental program. He saw the “HL” on her jersey for “head linesman,” and it struck him that a woman was wearing a label that was not gender-neutral.

“I just don’t think it's right that we call anybody out by gender,” Riveron told SB Nation via phone, “especially in this day and age when we welcome everyone into football.”

Riveron started the wheels in motion then that resulted this offseason in switching the name of the NFL officiating position to the gender-neutral “down judge.”

The NFL considered several other names for the position. Riveron knew the title had to include “judge,” but what exactly that was went through various iterations. “Chain judge” was one consideration, as was “LOS judge,” for “line of scrimmage.” Can you imagine the fun fans and media would have had with a name that looked far too much like LOL judge?

When “down judge” came across his desk, Riveron immediately knew that was it “because they are primarily responsible for tracking the downs.”

The position’s responsibilities won’t change. Down judges will still manage the chains and chain crew, as well as setting the line of scrimmage, marking the spot where the play ends, making line-of-scrimmage calls like false start and offside, as well as the hundred or so other things the position requires.

Riveron said the decision to change the position name was not, as has been reported, because Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s only female official, was moved to that position this year. He said the decision was finally made right after the Super Bowl, and it was only later that he moved Thomas to another crew and put her at the down judge position (she was a line judge last season).

"I wasn't going to let it go this year,” Riveron said. “I really pushed it hard for this season."

Riveron was also uniquely qualified and positioned to recognize an issue like this that hadn’t been on the radar screens of many. Growing up in Cuba and emigrating to the United States as a child, Riveron experienced bigotry throughout his life. He was the first NFL referee of Hispanic decent. He knows a thing or two about longstanding societal institutions making minorities feel uncomfortable.

"Am I sensitive to things like this? I am because of my upbringing, because of some of the things I went through.

“But I don't want to compare myself to other people. I'm fortunate to be around a lot of great people, and I'm not the only one who felt this needed to change.”

Riveron is now the league’s head of officiating, replacing the departed Dean Blandino, who is now working at Fox. This year Riveron had the will, the support, and the power to make the change for 2017.

Whether this change will have an effect on high school and college officiating remains to be seen. There was not ample time for the NCAA or NFHS to make changes to uniforms or rules books for this season. Riveron said he expects to talk about the change with NCAA national officiating coordinator Rogers Redding and others at the NCAA during annual joint meetings around the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

The NCAA has many women officiating across the country, a number of them in Division I.