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.