It’s an ongoing challenge to get this to a win-win situation.
For the second time in less than a month, the Southeastern Conference had to admit that a mistake was made by the same officiating crew on a personal foul penalty. The call or performance by that crew has prompted national criticism from everyone from T.O. to respected national media, even those in Florida. It’s embarrassing to the SEC, which prides itself on excellence in everything football.
It raises the question that since Florida and Alabama are two of the top teams in the BCS (and keeping them there means more money and prestige for the league) whether some teams get special protection.
And you have the persona of Tim Tebow, a universally admired quarterback and national media darling who represents the ideal in a college student-athlete-quarterback. With Tebow, it may be like what baseball umpires used to think about Ted Williams, universally acknowledged as having the best set of eyes in baseball. If Williams took what appeared to be a strike, in old baseball lore, an umpire would be very tempted to call it a ball.
The conjecture about special treatment to teams and individuals raises deep overriding questions in areas we won’t go right now because there is no real evidence.
We can offer some perspective, in a different but equally volatile context, from Walt Coleman of Little Rock, an NFL official for 24 years. He was the guest speaker at last week’s Hendrix/FCA-Bob Courtway Memorial Breakfast and he later visited with students in Cliff Garrison’s coaching class at Hendrix.
Coleman took every question, dodged none and shot straight.
The questions from the students and coaches-to-be were very interesting and insightful. One of them was whether NFL officials protect certain players.
Coleman said that the NFL has an entire department and several personnel devoted to rating every crew and every official at every game from a careful and meticulous high-definition video review. That’s important because only the top tier of officials get to work the playoffs (which means more money and prestige) and only the best at each position gets a Super Bowl assignment, the ultimate in that profession.
Coleman said an official doesn’t want to fall into the bottom tier because it means no playoff work and doesn’t guarantee a spot among the next year’s officials. There is a line among officials seeking to break into the NFL.
For a no-call that should have been called, an official gets minus-6 points. For a wrong call or misapplication of a rule, it’s minus 10 points. You notice it’s much worse to make a wrong call than to make no call.
"The problem I have with the system is the evaluation is all negative," Coleman said. "You get no positive credit for being in the right position and making a good call. But that’s the way the system is set up and it’s fair to everyone. ... But there is a very small percentage of error that any official has before he falls below what I call the NFL’s Mendoza Line. You don’t want to fall below the line; that can really hurt you for the future."
Each Tuesday, each NFL official gets a DVD of the game they worked showing both sideline and end zone view of every play. Each Wednesday, every official receives a small hard drive containing three sets of videos from every games played in the NFL — end zone, sideline and TV view. Each official also receives a critique of every call he made.
The officials have a chance to respond, refute or explain each call in which they are criticized and their response is further reviewed by the NFL supervisor. As referee, Coleman is supervisor of his crew and he says he takes about six hours to evaluate the games, then compiles a play list of calls, points of reference or rules applications from every game from the previous week. The officiating crew reviews that in a staff meeting the day before the next game.
Bottom line is NFL officials are held extremely accountable by their superiors.
"When you are working a game, particularly in the NFL, things happen so fast and you have to make so many quick decisions that you really don’t notice who it is," Coleman said. "In my 24 years in the NFL, I never had one instance where I was told that a guy had to be treated differently or protected.
"Most of the time during a game, I couldn’t even tell you the score. I’m looking at so many other things going on. And if we were trying to protect a certain player, if we do that and make a wrong call, it could make the difference in not working the playoffs or the Super Bowl. There is such a small margin of error on our grades that we can’t afford to make a wrong call just to protect a player. The most important thing to us is making sure the game is played fairly."
What about the coaches?
"I treat coaches like I treat customers in my dairy business," Coleman said. "I take the initial approach the customer is always right. I will listen to a coach, but I also know you can’t win a conversation with someone who is emotional. If they are cursing me, I just walk away."
Coleman told the class that there are the less-glamorous subtleties in the life of an NFL official.
In order to avoid any official connecting to a team too much, a crew is only allowed to work a maximum of one home and one away game for each team. And the strategy is similar to a card game.
"You don’t necessarily want games in cold-weather cities such as New England and Buffalo and Cleveland and Chicago late in the season," he said. "If you can get them, you want games in those cities in September. And you don’t want to use all your domed stadium games too early. That’s better later in the season. The dome games are kind of like trump cards. There’s a trick to when you use your dome games and when you want games in the north and midwest. And everyone wants the same thing, so you can’t get everything you want. It would be perfectly fine with me if I had every game in San Diego or Miami or Phoenix or a domed stadium."
And he said it’s a great challenge to concentrate, with both players and officials when a cold rain or snow is blowing right in the face.
He told the students he wears a scuba outfit under his referee togs in a cold-weather game, which presents urgent and obvious challenges when nature calls.
One student pointed out that many NFL players wear short sleeves or no sleeves in frigid temperatures.
"Yeh, but those guys are only on the field for a few plays, then they can go to the sideline, put on a jacket and cuddle up to one of those big heaters," Coleman said. "We have to stay in the middle of the field the whole time."
He said the NFL has its own travel agency that works out of its offices and all the officials travel arrangements are made and paid for through headquarters and officials are given a per diem for meals and expenses.
Under current policies by most airlines, does the NFL pay the fees for checked bags?
"We never check bags," Coleman said. "You learn that very early on. Have you ever tried to find a striped suit at WalMart?"
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)