Sports: Officiating, Part I

The football season ended the way a lot of seasons end with people talking about the officiating. A couple of calls and non-calls at the end of the game provided a sure-fire way for the Rams to win the game. Officiating across all the professional sports just seems to be pretty bad and no one really seems to do much about it. Nobody wants to talk about how much the officials determine the outcome of a game. Often times they are the main reason that a team wins the game. As in a previous blog, I stated that no pregame analysis ever includes, how the officials are going to do. What really determines who wins the game is the official’s competency, luck, and team ineptitude. Everyone on the outside of sports looking in, mainly the fans and media, knows that officiating is at it’s all time worst. Before we can look at ways to improve officiating, we need to look at the current state of officiating in each league.

What are the officials getting paid? They seem to be getting paid pretty well. In fact, officiating is not a bad gig to do, if you can be one of the lucky few who make it to the top. Most of this has just happened over the last twenty years but everybody is doing pretty well. The average salary of refs and officials in the various sports is around $200,000 a year. The highest paid are in the NBA, and the lowest in the NHL, but veteran officials are making well into 6 figures. Only the NFL refs do not receive a benefit package, since they are considered part time employees. We all know that the NFL refs hold down a full-time job during the week. This seems perfectly all right to the NFL, and even have shills in the press, to endorse that this is fine to have officials decide outcomes of games, with lots of other pressing issues on their minds during the week. The salaries are not all the same. The more experience and responsibility you have on the job, you will be paid more, sometimes considerably more, around twice the average league salary. The so-called better refs that do playoff games, get quite a bonus. The Super Bowl refs got a $30,000 to 50,000 bonus, and all the other leagues give $10,000 to $20,000 bonuses to work each playoff and championship series. They get travel expenses and obviously there is lots of travel. All and all, you can say that the referees and officials in pro sports are compensated quite nicely, for all the abuse that they sometimes have to take.

Then there are three factors that are all related and entwined with each other. Are professional officials, trained, do they regular go through performance reviews, and is anybody fired or demoted for incompetence or poor performance. There is very little or no training for officials in each league. What there is, is usually in the beginning of the season, and is more related to being in shape, than trying to hone judgement and refereeing skills. Obviously, none of the professional leagues thinks that practice makes perfect should apply to officials. Performance reviews are something else that is not high on the list of priorities in the various leagues. The NBA has none, and the other leagues only have periodic reviews, with baseball having most, which includes umpires going over their balls and strikes call. That leads to the not so surprising finding that hardly anyone ever gets fired or demoted for making bad calls that determine the outcomes of games. Not only do officials get paid well, but they also have job security second to none. Most of the firings, demotions and suspensions have had to with situations off the field, unrelated to job performance. There was one instance of an NFL official getting fired for missing an offside call, but that has been it. For whatever reason, the NFL just seemed to want to make an example of him. Nothing happened to ref who blew the pass interference call that most likely cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl. As a general rule, leagues think that not allowing a ref or official to do post season games in the future is punishment enough.

That is the work environment of professional officiating. There are some basics that need to be changed, that could help improve officiating, which will be in part II of this blog. There is no question that officiating and umpiring games is a thankless task, where one must suffer a lot of abuse, while performing one’s duties. Instant replay was supposed to right the bad calls and it seemed like such a simple concept. Again, professional sports have screwed that up so bad, that it has become more of a pain in the ass, than what it has been worth. I am an advocate of replay and there is an easy and simple way to use replay, that does not cause the game to come to a grinding halt. Even though I think the solutions to improve officiating are quite simple, there won’t be any improvement until each league admits that it is terrible and then cares enough to do something about. That day has not arrived yet.

2 Replies to “Sports: Officiating, Part I”

  1. Vet, athletes play the games and their performance ebbs and flows with the nuances and strategies being employed at the time. However, officials have gotten worse, agreed. Since pay, training, etc has not worsened, what’s caused the decline? I believe it’s instant replay. Any time you replace a human activity with a machine, you cannot expect the remaining human activity to improve. It’s human nature for it to decline. I see this in my business, software testing. Over the years, human testing has been replace by automated testing and the gut instinct that humans provide that a machine cannot has declined. It’s no fault of the testers but being replaced by machines gets you lazy. The original intent of replay was understandable; fix the wrongs of officiating. But once we got on the replay slope, we could not back off. As more calls are blown, the tendency is to add those to the reviewable segment and relieve the humans of more responsibility. Just waiting for holding and a slew of penalties to be added to replay by the NFL

    I know replay is here to stay, but if you think you’re going to improve officiating, you’ve got to look at dialing it back somehow.




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