WOLFE: The importance of Referees

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I have previously written about the importance of referees and they’re being super vigilant with respect to the safety of the players; and in particular, penalizing any and all contact with the head, and to the head. The dialogue regarding brain injury and football continues, and I believe that one of the major answers must be an increased attention to enforcing the current rules, and giving thought to establishing even tougher rules. See the points below, referring to these issues, taken from Football Canada’s Rule book.

“No player, including the ball carrier, shall use his helmet to butt or ram an opponent Prohibited contact – forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder.”

I would remove the term “defenseless player”, from the above statement. Why not protect all players from blows to the head.

NCAA officials have an advantage, they can stop the game and analyze plays with the use of cameras, and potentially eject players for “targeting”, should they find that targeting had occurred. Targeting is defined as “contacting a defenseless player above the shoulders or using the crown of the helmet to contact an opponent”. If the USport officials had access to the NCAA rules, and video replay, it would be much easier to make these calls. That however is not our reality, therefore an even greater emphasis on the protection of players is required during live time. It is yet more difficult for the officials at lower levels, where fewer referees are on the field. NFL and NCAA games include 7 officials, USport uses 6 officials, lower levels, might have 3, 4 or 5; fewer eyes to make these tough calls.

Many would say that officiating is deficient at most levels of football; and that while the quality of play continues to improve, that is not the case with the refereeing. If this is the case, why, and what can be done?

In order to have excellent quality at the top, a very large number of officials are required at the base. Generally successful teams have large rosters; large rosters create competition; competition will improve the probability of excellence at the top. There are many locales in our country where the numbers are not at the necessary level. The recruitment and retention of referees is problematic. Not enough graduating football players stay in the game, and give back to the game, by becoming officials. I have coached many years, and cannot recall a referees association requesting a list of graduating players. It seems to me that should be a must.

Refereeing any sport is a challenge, and refereeing football is extremely challenging. To become a good official requires many of the same skills that are needed by athletes. The following are some of the qualities of good officials – judgement, integrity, hustle, courage, work ethic, communication, fitness, confidence, and dedication. Not everyone has the courage and possesses thick enough skin, to go into an environment where many see you as the enemy. Once again, most graduating football players possess these qualities.

Another excellent potential for recruitment, the university faculties of physical education. I went to the sites of many Canadian universities, and could not find any offering an officiating option amongst its “activity courses”. I did not research every Canadian school, hopefully there are some (as there are some in the US) who offer this option. I believe it would be advantageous for officials associations, to meet with their local dean(s) of PE, to make the powerful case for the inclusion of officiating classes. All PE programs have “practical” courses that are a required component of the curriculum. The practical courses (some universities use the term “activity courses”) include most sports. The purpose of these courses; prepare students to coach various sports at the highschool level or higher. Why not include officiating? It seems like a natural. If they haven’t a faculty member to instruct the course, they could easily find qualified officials to do so; just as they might bring in a competent instructor of martial arts or aquatics.

What is the upside for the university? Virtually all sports need qualified officials; they would therefore be helping their community, as well as a variety of sports. The university would be aiding their students financially. In the short term, the student, would be able to immediately officiate intramural games at his or her school, being paid a small stipend, offsetting some of the cost of tuition, books etc. In the longer term, the student, after joining a local officials association and passing appropriate tests, becomes eligible for assignment, to games in his/her community. Thus adding to their potential earnings.

Another issue – most athletes are athletes year round; training and competing. The athletes are therefore improving on a regular basis. Most coaches attend clinics and/or seek information on the web; to progress as coaches. If the football official is not working at his/her craft in the off season; it becomes difficult, if not impossible to improve. I believe that it is necessary for officials associations, to meet regularly during the offseason – predominantly to review films. Rules review is also important, as well as conditioning sessions. I have no doubt that many officials are conscientious and dedicate themselves to offseason improvement. In order to improve the game, and to improve the officiating, offseason development is required.

Why would anyone want to become a referee? I would point to the following;

  • Give back to the game – help it grow – help it become safer
  • The great challenge, and the satisfaction, that comes with knowing you helped a game run smoothly and safely
  • Fitness – a great run outdoors
  • A little extra $$ – why pay for a gym, when you can get paid to workout

Football is a great game and offers so much to so many. However, we are at a crossroads, as a football community, it is imperative that we find ways to maintain the integrity of the sport, while making it safer. I maintain that central to that goal, is the improvement of officiating. Certainly it is important that we get the offsides, holding, and pass interference calls correct; it is however vital that the focal point, the emphasis, be the elimination of hitting with the head, and hits to the head!! For this to occur, we need more and better trained officials. First and foremost we must recruit ex players, they have a feel for the game that is so difficult to cultivate in a clinic or other setting.

Advocating for football prospects one story at a time.

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