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The NFL needs full time officials

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It is time to get with the times

Washington Redskins v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It seems that every week a talking point in the NFL is an objectively bad call or non-call made by league officials. Some bad calls are the fault of the league, who can’t clearly define what a catch is and allow only certain plays to be reviewed. The league needs to either allow all plays to be reviewed, or have an off-field official who can order a replay like the NCAA has. It’s bad enough that the officials on the field missed obvious, clear infractions such as the helmet to helmet hit of Jordan Matthews, that there is no recourse to correct that in-game is embarrassing and easily correctable mistake. Other bad calls are the fault of the officials themselves, whose standards can be raised by making them true professionals.

NFL officials are currently part time employees, many have day jobs of various types, from teachers to lawyers to administrative positions for college officials. There is no magic wand to wave that will solve all the league’s issues, but full time officials will improve the quality of officiating, because raising standards raises quality.

The NFL before World War II was a glorified semi-pro league. Players came and went, because it wasn’t a career. The first and third picks in the league’s first draft in 1936 never played football, both Jay Berwanger and Bill Shakespear instead went into more lucrative business jobs. The highest paid player in 1938 was rookie Byron “Whizzer” White, who led the league in rushing that year. He sat out the 1939 season to go to Oxford but then transferred to Yale when the war broke out and played just two more seasons in the NFL. In 1962 he became a Supreme Court Justice.

After WWII, the league, like the rest of the nation, saw a increase in money, and like other sports leagues, an increase in available talent and coaching. The All-America Football Conference began in 1946, and with it the Cleveland Browns. Coached by the legendary Paul Brown, they were the epitome of the increase in professionalism in the NFL. Brown created, among other things, a practice squad by putting players nominally on the payroll of owner Mickey McBride’s cab service. For years a practice squad was also called a “taxi squad.” Brown pioneered using game film to study opponents and he increased his coaching staff, which brought about specialization.

The increase in standards and practices meant that playing and coaching football became a full time profession, and the quality of the league greatly increased with it. In the decade before WWII, the league fluctuated between 8 and 10 teams, during the decade after WWII, the AAFC and NFL merged and created a stable 12 team league, another decade later the NFL and AFL had a combined 22 teams. Growth benefited everyone.

Today, the NFL is a billion dollar business. The league’s calendar is stretched out as far as possible to keep the NFL in the headlines as long as possible. The NFL has world class stadiums, three prime time TV slots, its own TV network, and plays out of country games to increase its reach. It has become a behemoth.

But despite this, the NFL is not a completely professional league. NFL officials, unlike their MLB, NBA and NHL counterparts, are not full time employees. The league will argue that because NFL teams plays one game a week, full time officials aren’t necessary. They will and have argued that it won’t eliminate the human element.

Goodell said he thought having full-time officials would not "eliminate the human element," adding that he would consider it only "if I thought full-time officials would solve the problem."

"As you see, there are officiating mistakes in other leagues, and they're full-time officials," Goodell said. "I don't think that's going to eliminate the human element. What we want to do is get the best people on the field to officiate the game to the highest levels. Our officials work incredibly hard, and the reality is they do a great job. But they're going to miss calls."

Their surrogates will argue that it will do things like that the league will lose good officials.

Of course full time officials won’t eliminate the human element, so long as anything involves humans there will be a human element. To dismiss that as a reason to not try is at best naive, at worst an insulting attempt to change the subject. The goal isn’t to eliminate the human element, because that is impossible, the goal is to reduce the human element as much as possible.

Peter King argues that making officials choose between professions would hurt the league, claiming that losing the old guards of officiating would cause a drain. This supposes two things, neither of which are true. One, that the league would have to make them all full time overnight. Simply making the new officials that enter the league every year (roughly half a dozen) and offering existing ones the option of going full time would make a significant amount of officials full time, within a few years a majority of officials would be full time. And two, when the problem is that the officials are not getting the job done, there should be little concern over losing them. The loss of officials like Pete Morelli or Jeff Triplette would be addition by subtraction.

The replacement officials of 2012 does show that not just anyone can do the job, but those were officials from high school, D-III, and semi-pro leagues, and bad ones at that, some were available because they had been fired for incompetence. Their embarrassing performances are not a reason to run from them, they’re a reason to make officials full time employees. Spending weekdays and offseasons training will raise the level of officiating. Every scenario can be gamed out in practice, reducing the human error. An officiating crew that only works one day a week together has a large margin of error, one that works together five days a week will not.

It’s not like the league can’t afford them. By 2019, the average salary of officials will be $201,000, with a minimum of $90,000. It’s already a lucrative job. It’s time to make it a full time job too.

An increase in professionalism will only result in an increase in quality. It won’t solve every issue, but it will improve officiating, which will improve the NFL.