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Opinion: You despise NFL officials and the league is counting on it

Let the hate flow through you

It’s time to finally admit it. I’m a bit of an oddball when it comes to football content creators. Over the last [mumbles number] years I’ve developed a bit of a reputation as a rules expert. And that is a weird, weird niche. Aside from former officials and maybe Thad Brown, how many of us ever actually sit down to do full content on nothing more than... the rules?

This niche has led to a lot of conversations (and arguments) that have led me to two conclusions.

Conclusion One: A lot of fans despise the refs.

Conclusion Two: Most fans struggle with what the rules actually are (that’s not a dig).

These two conclusions have convinced me of a greater truth. This is exactly what the NFL wants.

Understanding the rules

I’ve dedicated a LOT of virtual ink to breaking down the rules of the game. In order to do that I’ve committed a ton of research time. By doing so I’ve discovered how little I used to know about the sport of football. I’m still learning, too, for the record. I wouldn’t be doing any of that though if there weren’t always questions to answer. Why are there so many questions though?

Football is great because on its surface, most of the rules are pretty straightforward. A bunch of guys near where the ball started get to shove each other. Players away from that area generally can’t shove each other very much. Each play will feature either a game of catch, or a player trying to run through an obstacle course of other players. This next thought is one we’ll come back to in the next section, but it’s worth mentioning now, too. For most plays there’s nothing more to understand.

But on a handful of plays we need the full rule book. Sometimes that’s the easy part. Shoving after shove time is over doesn’t require much interpretation. Blindside block on the other hand requires knowledge of a multitude of components. The full rule book is 95 pages long, or more than 65,000 words if you prefer that measure. A literal novel if you go by the usual standards.

Simply put, there’s a lot to know.

Why don’t fans learn as they go along?

To some degree most of us do. When Matt Ryan slid head first and cost himself a touchdown social media had a collective “OOOOOHHHH! I didn’t know that” moment. Going forward a lot of fans will remember this one because it’s the same rule as sliding feet first and we see that rule applied all the time.

What about a blindside block though? You have to know what body parts are prohibited, what direction of travel the player has, their location on the field, what “forcible” looks like, plus a few other conditions. And definitions for a lot of the terms I just hinted at.

It’s all in the rulebook for the record. And none of it is really all that complicated. I’m not a sorcerer with some innate ability to read. None of us so-called “experts” are. I have a different motivation than most fans. Most fans aren’t going to have fun reading the rule novel like I do. Further, very few fans are willing to stop watching the game to look something up. You’re motivated to watch your team play. Penalties and talk of rules is an interruption.

And even if you WERE motivated to look up the rule the replays will already be over with by the time you get to the right citation. Put simply, the time and effort it takes to look up rules in the moment are too great for many penalties to be a good learning moment. You need to deliberately take time AFTER the game to dissect the play in question and compare it to the rule book.

And who wants to do THAT?

How does this lead to the Dark Side?

As a rule, humans hate being confused or being in ambiguous situations in general. We often seek to clarify these events through other means. Two of the most common ways are by using our beliefs and/or feelings.

Take the Cody Ford blindside block from the Buffalo Bills’ playoff game against the Houston Texans. Do you know how many times I heard the argument that the opponent was facing Ford? The word “blindside” gives us a frame of reference. Unfortunately it’s an incorrect one (they really should change the name). While the concept of a blindside is worked into the rules, there’s no consideration of attention/direction for a player. This is one example of many. Incomplete information creates poor consideration of the rules. That leads to the interpretation that it must be the refs who got it wrong. And it’s all based on what we believe the rule is. This is further fueled by instances where the refs really did do a poor job (cough, cough, Tampa game). If they messed it up THIS time, then what about THAT time?

As humans we also tend to fill in the blanks with how we feel about the situation. In a recent penalty recap I compared very similar penalties in the same game. One was on the Bills. The other on the opponent. I’ll go on record saying that a misunderstood concept of “strict liability” puts both flags in the ambiguous zone for a lot of fans. I’ll further go on record and say that only the one called on the Bills caused vitriol to the refs on my social media feed (which is full of Bills fans). We feel that our team/players are in the right and the opponent is less trustworthy so one flag is “justified” whereas the other is “a garbage call.”

The feelings issue is exacerbated by the stigma of “breaking the rules.” I often see “that wasn’t a dirty hit” to justify a Buffalo flag. The word “dirty” isn’t in the rulebook. I’ve checked. The rules are written about circumstances, not motivations. The nicest guy in the world will still get called for a flag. We just don’t like that idea.

Both beliefs and feelings point the same culprit; the refs.

When we think the refs got it wrong then they made a mistake. It’s their fault. When our feelings lead us to think a flag is unfair... It’s their fault. Here are a few more quick-hitters on how we learn to internalize our dislike of the refs.

  • Penalties are the only time refs are front-and-center. There’s a direct association with the referee and “bad news.” For the times we’re prone to blaming them, it reinforces the concept of “It’s their fault.”
  • There are roughly 12-14 penalties called in a game. That’s roughly one every 4-5 minutes of game time, or roughly one every 12 minutes of real time. They’re interruptions. They distract from the game.
  • Even worse, sometimes they negate exciting plays. And that is a dreadful rollercoaster for fans.

Can the NFL fix this?

They sure as hell can! I work in compliance full-time and have a degree in Criminal Justice. I’ve read a loooooooooooot of rules in my time on this planet and I have this to say about the NFL rulebook:

It is one of the best-written documents I’ve ever seen when it comes to rules/regulatory language. It’s clear. Words that need definitions have definitions. Everything is searchable. The book, refs, play-by-play and everything in between uses consistent terminology. I could go on, but for a resource to learn from you couldn’t ask for a better resource. And it’s free, right here.

I said you couldn’t ask for a better resource. Yet the NFL delivers it anyway. If you clicked that link to the left you’ll see easy links to:

  • The video rulebook, which gives examples of almost every penalty type with illustrations of what they mean by most terms in real time.
  • A guide to the roles of the officials.
  • Dives into gameday routines, technology used in the sport, analytics and way more.

None of this is hidden.

Further, did you know that every official on the field is graded on every play they oversee? Officials and crews sometimes quietly slip away if their grades are bad. In the case of Hugo Cruz, it was less quiet. I won’t bog this down with too many more words on the matter, but there’s a robust system of keeping the officials in check. And I’ve looked at the data. Most officiating crews are astonishingly similar over the course of a season. The calls are remarkably consistent in other words.

Like the rules resources, none of this is hidden either. But NONE of it is promoted. And in the case of the grading system and rankings of the officials those ARE hidden. You probably also have noticed that coaches and players can be fined for calling out the officials. It’s prohibited. Further, the NFL rarely comes out with a statement to clarify what the ref saw or what the interpretation of the rule was. Most often we see some version of “These penalties are a judgment call.”

The NFL has vast resources put into ensuring officiating consistency and quality control and tools to help people learn the game. All of these things could be used to teach fans and lessen the ire fans feel. They do none of that. They know we hate the refs. They could change that AND stick up for the integrity of the game and they choose not to.

That really only leaves one option...

The NFL prefers that you despise the refs

Nearly everyone associated with the league truly cares about the sport. The players. The coaches. The owners. Etc. etc. But as a league, the goal is to make money. Each game is an opportunity to do that. There just aren’t that many games to do it.

Each team is guaranteed 17. Compare that to 82 for basketball and hockey, or 162 for baseball. One terrible game that discourages butts in seats and eyes on screens is a big deal. They need fans watching every. single. game.

We’ve heard the same refrain for years. “PARITY” or “There’s always one team that comes out of nowhere!” Every year 32 fanbases are bombarded with “There’s a chance!” Let’s face it though, some teams don’t have a chance. Bills fans know what I mean. Every year we convinced ourselves otherwise until it was too late. By the time we know it, we’ve already settled in and gotten ourselves invested.

Parity isn’t an illusion though. “Any given Sunday” isn’t a meaningless cliché. Often it really can be “a game of inches.” Most teams don’t have a realistic shot at a title run. But every team has a shot at 1-0 in any given week. That reality is like gasoline on the flames of “IF IT WEREN’T FOR THE DAMN REFS!” A perceived missed call here, a bad call there... and suddenly you’re convinced your team was “screwed.”

This is a lot of words to convince you of a pretty simple point. When you finally realize your team just sucks you stop watching. By deflecting that negativity to a third party it allows you to maintain the hope that keeps you glued to your seat. So keep hating the refs. It’s good for business.