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NFL Refs: What Does it Take to Be One?

With the possibility of a settlement between National Football League (NFL) owners and referees in sight, football fans are hopeful that the mistakes of the past few weeks may soon end.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

With the possibility of a settlement between National Football League (NFL) owners and referees in sight, football fans are hopeful that the mistakes of the past few weeks may soon end.

These errors by inexperienced substitute refs culminated Monday night in what many believe may have been the worst-called game in history between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

The last-second call in the end zone that was ruled a Seattle touchdown instead of an interception left players, coaches and fans were left either extremely angry or in head-shaking disbelief.

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Players and coaches are also worried about whether the replacements are safely managing the hard-hitting game. Oakland Raider wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was knocked unconscious by a helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Munday, but no penalty was called. Heyward-Gey was carried off the field last Sunday and taken to the hospital with a concussion and neck injury, and was released Wednesday.

"The integrity of the game is not just a matter of fair implementation of the rules, it's also about protecting the players from risks of the game," said Michael Oriard, former NFL player in the 1970s, author of several books about the NFL and an English professor at Oregon State University. "To allow this sort of thing to go on, it's appalling."

Experts say there are big differences between replacement refs and the ones locked out because of a contract dispute. While youth may be important for players, knowledge of the NFL rules, the ability to assume and maintain authority, and the "people" skills of managing the anger of players and coaches are the biggest skills of an experienced NFL referee.

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"To be a good referee you have to be a good student," said Red Cashion, who worked as ref in the NFL from 1972 until his retirement in 1997, including two Super Bowls. "It takes an awful lot of study to know the rules themselves and now that instant replay is a factor, there are a lot of special rules that apply. You have to have the willingness to learn them and be able to recall them in a hurry. You have a situation, something occurs and the coach turns to you and says 'is that a reviewable play?' You have to know the answer, and not look it up in a book."

Cashion said that although referees are often decade or two older than the players on the field, they still have to be in excellent physical shape to keep up. Cashion and several other former NFL referees were training new refs until the NFL owners fired the trainers as the season opened. Then there's the authority factor.

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"Coaches and players can lose their temper, but the official can't. He always has to be in control," Cashion said. "Once you lose it, it's extremely difficult to get it back."

Sideline anger at the refs boiled over on Sunday in several games. On Wednesday, the NFL fined New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichik $50,000 for grabbing a refs arm during the game, while Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was slapped with a $25,000 fine for verbally berating another ref.

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Most of the replacement referees working the first three games of the NFL season have been recruited from lower-level college ranks, according to Cashion and others. More experienced college refs have refused to cross the picket lines to work as "scabs" during the labor dispute, Oriard said.

"Top big-time college refs would make the transition fairly easily," said Oriard, author of the 2007 book 'Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport.' "They would have to immerse themselves in the rules. I would think that they could make that transition. It would take them a while. But these are among the least skilled folks out there."

The NFL referees are asking for a salary increase as well as team owner contribution to a fixed pension plan. The NFL owners want to switch to a managed 401k retirement system and have more control of firing referees that don't perform up to certain standards.

The controversial call during Monday Night Football even reached the White House. President Obama called the outcome of the Packers-Seahawks "terrible," and said: "We've got to get our refs back."