Throwing a flag on Brian Goff

Earlier today my colleague Brian Goff weighed in on the current NFL referee strike. I think he got almost everything right except one crucial point.

As current D1 college soccer referee and a former Major League Soccer official, I have to take issue with Brian’s claim, “Yes, there are some specific skills, both individually and as a coordinated unit, that officials need in order to effectively manage an NFL game, and these skills take some time and training to attain to the level of the old refs. However, there are literally thousands if not millions of people capable of acquiring these skills in a relatively short time.”

Let me tell you from first-hand experience that this is almost certainly completely untrue. High-level sports officiating is extraordinarily difficult. I’m smart enough to have received a Ph.D. in economics from a good school. I am fairly athletic and fit. I have over 100 professional games and 750 collegiate games of experience as a referee. At the peak of my ability I was among the 100 best referees in the US out of over 100,000 registered soccer officials in the country. And yet, if I were called upon to serve as a replacement referee in the event of an MLS referee’s strike, I would be a significant drop in quality compared to the average referee in MLS. If someone with my skills and experience would have a hard time stepping into the lion’s den, there’s simply not some huge pool of potential MLS or NFL referees out there just waiting to be discovered.

So, would it just take me a little time to get acclimated to the difference between the Ivy League or Big East and MLS? My general rule of thumb is that no one can be a decent soccer referee without 1000 games of experience, and even then only a tiny fraction of those experienced referees have what it takes to make the right calls under intense pressure from thousands of fans and future Hall of Fame players and coaches. Are there really millions of people out there who have the ability to go face to face with Ray Lewis without blinking?

The MLS refereeing pool entirely turns over roughly every 10 or 15 years on its own, so the current crop could probably be effectively replaced in well under a decade. But that is probably longer than Brian meant by “a relatively short time.” The turnover in the NFL is probably somewhat slower since the physical demands of soccer refereeing significantly limits the number of top-level officials over the age of 45 while NFL referees typically hang around much longer.

Steve Young noted after Monday night’s officiating debacle between the Atlanta Falcons and my Denver Broncos that, “Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There is nothing they can do to hurt demand for the game. So, the bottom line is they don’t care.”

Props to Steve Young for using a nice economics term, and if he is correct, and I suspect he largely is, both he and Brian are exactly right in saying that the referees have a weak hand.

But, it’s not because officiating ability is simply a commodity that is easily replaced.

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Author: Victor Matheson

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9 thoughts on “Throwing a flag on Brian Goff”

  1. Do we really believe that NFL demand is inelastic wrt to reffing quality ? I quit watching the Monday night game after the debacle of a first quarter…. and that was the short run. Presumably the effect would be even bigger in the long run.

  2. I would agree that refereeing is a very difficult job, and one that not a lot of people can do at the top level. And with enough blown calls, it is possible the NFL owners would have to bend to popular outrage.

    An aside: the key word in Steve Young’s quote is the word “now.” The NFL is certainly not an inelastic good in the long-term. 10-15 years from now, when Manchester United and Real Madrid are running youth soccer training programs in Texas, Florida, and Southern California that pick off the standout athletes by offering a much bigger payout up front for a longer athletic career that doesn’t leave them with potentially debilitating brain damage, then the NFL might look on the short-term reliance on its inelasticity as a mistake.

  3. Unlike soccer, the gap in performance and speed between D1 football and the NFL probably is much closer, so that the NCAA refs who work over 50 games each weekend and are relatively underpaid are a ready pool of replacements. The current replacements are from DIII which may not be even as good as the top end of Texas HS ball.

  4. Nate,

    Nate, I love soccer and played it through high school. Although I think it will make further head roads in America, I’m not sure it will significantly sap NFL talent. For one, competition already exists from sports that are safe and pay better – baseball and basketball both fit those criteria. I’m also not sure that many of the players that are NFL players (300 lb linemen for example) are prospective soccer stars.

    I do think football is going to have some issues from the brain and long-term injury front. I’m not sure that will initially be from lack of playing talent, but probably from legal liability. Look how the NFL has had to respond to bounty gate – what would there liability be if the knowingly allowed players to intentionally injury other players. Likewise, there liability for allowing plays that knowingly causing certain times of brain injuries could be large as well. I wonder if this will effect college and high school football before the NFL though and dry up some talent that way.


  5. Baseball Guy,

    It is true that football already has competition from baseball and basketball. However, both of those sports still conspire to limit a players ultimate earnings over the course of a career. Basketball requires players to go through an unpaid internship (college).

    In theory, baseball offers a direct route to riches right of high school, but it also offers fewer career opportunities over the course of careers since a player is only valuable if he is prospect for a major league team. There is no such thing as a 32 year old baseball player who has no major league potential but still plays because he can do a solid job in AAA. In soccer, since the minor leagues are competitive and are not simply feeders to big clubs in the top leagues, a player can in theory extend his career over a longer period of time even if he isn’t at the top level.

    Moreover, I would argue that football and baseball have very limited growth prospects overseas, and that will limit their ability to match soccer (and basketball) when these sports start to leverage the financial might that comes with being more popular throughout the world.

    As for the 300 pound lineman- yes, he will always play football. But the skill positions – quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerbacks, safeties…these guys can play soccer or other sports.

  6. See: Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Sept 24, 2012.

    I know exactly what you mean about reffing, too. My son plays in church-league basketball games. He’s 15. Now, it is a pretty good church league; plenty of players in it have gone on to have an impact in their high schools, and high school basketball in Northern California is played at a very high level.

    Even in the church league, the pressure on the refs is very high. These kids are amazingly strong and tough, and I’ve never been to a game where there aren’t at least 3-4 parents who know more than the refs. They talk loudly and yell most of the game. I don’t know why the refs don’t toss some of the parents. And I swear I’m not exaggerating.

    The pressure has to be 10 times greater in high school games; then 10 times higher in college; then 10 times higher in major college games; then another 10 times harder in the pros.

    I have nothing but respect for good rec-league refs. To say that “millions” of people could step in with relatively little notice is completely wrong.

  7. I have to disagree with your comments that there is not as a large pool of refereeing talent Brian Goff surmised. The fact is that there is a very small percentage of the population who attempts to referee sport of any kind. It is a thankless, underpaid position for nearly every position up to and including pro sports. There arent even veyr many former players who attempt to officiate because there are more alluring employment and recreation prospects elsewhere.

    People who have the potential to be high level officials dont bother to realize their talents and instead apply them elsewhere.

    If something was done to improve the compensation for refereeing, such as making the NFL refs full time employees we might see a change in that situation. How about smaller leagues making a whoelsale change to eliminate trash talking to the refs? It wouldnt take long to change the culture if every parent who yelled at a ref in a little league game was banned from the field for the rest of a season!

  8. Steve,
    Remember that 300 lb lineman are not a natural occurrence. Those players are “made” for football through specific training programs and often through PEDs. Most of them start at 200+ lbs in high school. And as Nate points out, its really the skill position players, who are less than 220 lbs in HS and often multi-sport athletes, who make football go. No skill players, no 300 lb linemen.

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