They travel in packs of seven and are required to wear jackets and ties when they do. You see them all the time on television during the fall season, but they pass you practically unnoticed on the street. They don’t mind being anonymous, for they are truly the men and women in black (and white): they are the game officials for the National Football League, or as some call them, the third team on the field.
Typically, there are sixteen crews of officials that travel and work together anywhere from two to three days at a time every weekend during the football season. Each crew, for example, has a head referee (that usually wears a different color cap), an umpire, a head lineman, and four judges (side, field, line, and back).
A crew assignment lasts one year, which includes the pre-season. Officials are also expected to go to training camp, review rules, take exams, do sprints to keep up with a play, pass a physical, and much more. This is what creates a strong team bond.
Each official is responsible for watching specific positions during a game; and with 22 players running around the field at full speed, delivering bone-crushing hits, it can be tough for officials to see everything.
So, What Does it Take to be a Good Official?
Someone who can be decisive while keeping a professional manner. In other words, a person who isn’t on an emotional roller-coaster, especially when athletes, coaches, and fans are screaming at you for what they believe was “a bad call.”
That being said, good referees must also have good people skills, and have the courage to make tough calls at the right time, especially during championship games like the Super Bowl — one of the three top sporting events in the world. Normally, when the game starts to heat up, so do participants. A tough call will make players and coaches like Seattle’s Pete Carroll, erupt.
How Do You Become a Pro Official in the NFL?
You can’t just throw on a striped shirt, toot your whistle and apply for an NFL officiating job. Although it’s not impossible to become a National Football League referee, it’s not easy either. Whether you’ve been a referee for a long time or just starting out, if you plan on becoming an official, you will need education, experience, and lots of practice. An NFL referee must be able to stay focused while millions of people judge their work. Their judgment affects teams, audience members, and ultimately the NFL’s reputation.
While there’s no predetermined career path, you should start early. Referee a Pop Warner League, for instance. After you’ve gained some experience, move up to high school.
After a few years of that if you’re still interested, break into college football. Important things to know: you must have 10 years’ experience in college football — five of which need to be at the top division level — before the NFL will consider you. It helps to have experience as a player and/or coach.
After 10 years of college football, write the NFL officials in New York. Make sure you included a full schedule of games you’ve officiated for the past two years and your complete schedule of the upcoming season.
After applying, you just have to play waiting game. Although most interviews are face-to-face, the NFL does things a little differently. If they are serious about you, they’ll send one of their 40 scouts to come watch you (that’s right, the NFL has referee scouts). You probably won’t even know you’re being scouted, and you may be scouted for three years before they call you. Scouts are monitoring referees all year long to fill just a handful of slots.
If you make it, you’ll face long interviews, background checks on your finances, and a psychological exam to make sure you can deal with the high level of stress. As a beginner, expect to earn around $1,431 per game; a 20-year veteran will earn about $4,330. If you make it to the biggest game of them all (the Super Bowl), expect your check to be in the tens of thousands.
When it comes to officiating, NFL referees are expected to be the best of the best; in fact, there are only 123 officials who have the privilege of calling football games at the highest level of the sport. No one officiates forever, which is why the NFL is developing a robust talent pipeline to ensure that the next generation of referees are ready to step up when called upon.