Thursday, February 22, 2018
Sports

A solution for awful NFL officiating? Simplify the rules

Officiating gaffes continue to be a story line of the 2015 NFL season, and the problem is not just human error.

Football rulebooks are too complicated and too freighted with zany distinctions: In high school, players must wear shoes, but socks are optional, while in the pros, players must wear socks but don't need to wear shoes.

And was it a catch or not a catch? In the offseason, the league said, "The language pertaining to a catch was clarified." The clarification is 158 words and incomprehensible to a Supreme Court clerk.

Rulebook simplification would improve officiating. As for replay review, how about making it blind? If the reviewing official did not know what call was made on the field, he or she wouldn't have observer bias.

The NFL's rulebook is 79 pages single spaced. The rulebook used in college, and in high school play in Massachusetts and Texas, is 73 pages single spaced. The National Federation of High Schools rulebook employed in all other states drones on for 112 pages.

No official could possibly remember everything in any of these documents. When zebras botched the call at the end of the Detroit-Seattle contest on Monday Night Football, no one on the officiating crew knew how to enforce the rule regarding deliberate batting of a loose ball. Excessively complicated football rules reflect the over-lawyering of contemporary life.

Football happens fast — "bang-bang" is the apt description. College action is faster than high school play, while at the NFL level, every player was the fastest guy on his college team. High-speed collisions mean that errors of judgment are inevitable; trying to keep all the rules in your head makes the situation worse. Simplifying the rulebooks would allow officials to concentrate on judgment.

Rules variations among the high school, college and pro levels add more layers of confusion. Pass interference is enforced differently in the NCAA from in the NFL. Some flags that are automatic first downs in the pros are not automatic first downs in college. Deliberate batting of a loose ball? Always illegal in high school, OK in the pros if the ball is batted toward the sidelines. But not if batted parallel to the sidelines!

People who become NFL officials usually begin at the high school or college levels — the celeb referee Ed Hochuli started by working Pop Warner games. If rules were standardized, zebras would need only to keep one set of rules in their heads, and would get more reps enforcing the unitary standards.

Maybe the solution to NFL yellow-flag woes would be full-time officials. The roughly $25 million the NFL now spends annually on officials is petty cash to a $12 billion organization.

Now the blind review idea. The basic premise of NFL review is that the call on the field should be overturned only if the replay official is certain the call was wrong.

Technology has made possible a shift of challenges to the NFL office in New York; the replay official no longer attends the game. Since the replay official now sits in an office, reviews would be more credible if the reviewer did not know the call on the field. New York Times

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