From Player to Referee: Why More Leagues Should Make This Transition

After any given sporting event, chances are you can log on to social media and see fans complaining about a ref or umpire missing a critical call in a game. Attention has been drawn to this more and more, especially in the NFL this year as media outlets have taken referees to task in numerous articles.

From an unclear understanding of what exactly is a catch to what is actually roughing the passer, the NFL’s part-time refs have been under scrutiny for quite some time.

Now, former refs are coming to public defense of current refs, as Mike Pereira was quoted in a MMQB article with Peter King saying this about refs being part-time, “I can’t fathom what a side judge would do all week to get better and make better calls on Sunday. Read the rule book? Watch a lot more tape? If they went full-time what effect would it have? Basketball officials work basketball all the time; they get criticized all the time. Baseball umpires, same thing. We have maybe 19 games a year for our officials. Look at the accuracy rate. It’s pretty damn incredible. There’s maybe 155 plays a game, with 10 significant decisions to be made on every one. And what’s the accuracy—maybe 96 percent? There’s going to be mistakes. I think the officiating right now, overall, is excellent. I don’t want all these new officials that would come in all at once. What it comes down to for me is whether full-time officials would really improve officiating, and I don’t think it would.”

Well, it seems the NHL may have an answer to help improve officiating in their games—recruit former players at a combine.

According to an article on Scouting the Refs, “The Combine’s focus is on high level hockey players with little or no officiating experience. The Combine is accepting ex-college (D1, DII, DIII), University (CIS) and Junior hockey players.”

A quote from NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom in the article stated, “We need the athletes. We need the guys that are great skaters. We need people that want to serve the game before they get out of shape. Every league needs people like that. So instead of sitting back and hoping that it happens, we’re making sure that it does happen.”

The NHL calls this experience the “Exposure Combine.” They held their second annual combine this past August in Buffalo, but former players—like Paul Stewart—were already becoming refs long before this happened.

With so many issues and public outcry for better officiating in professional sports, other leagues should consider taking the approach the NHL has with recruiting former players to ref when their playing days are over. The NFL employs two former players, Steve Freeman (13 years as a defensive back) and Phil McKinnely (seven years as an offensive lineman), but two of 124 officials employed by the league (according to this article) is not nearly enough.

Just like in coaching circles, players have a unique perspective on the game and would be able to identify the areas of the game where the biggest calls are being missed. They would also be able to make better judgment calls on—especially in the NFL—15-yard personal fouls that can alter the course of the game and momentum in a big way.

Ultimately it is up to the league to garner interest on this possible transition. But if there are players willing to get into officiating when their playing days are over with, it could cultivate a steady pipeline of future employees who are trained correctly and can make the overall product better for both the players and the fans.

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