There’s a hilarious, deeply uncomfortable clip from a Giants-Patriots preseason game this year that gets to the heart of the problem the NFL is having with its replacement referees—an issue that has quickly become one of the dominant stories of the nascent NFL season. It’s of scab ref Don King (not that Don King, though that might have been fun) struggling to find the words to announce a penalty. “We have fouls by both teams during the kick. We have illegal shift by the kicking team … Correction on the reporting of the foul. Both teams were … ” It is like watching man evolve—an ape grappling with a stick. Fans began booing on the spot.
Of all the issues involving the scab referees, the main problem isn’t that they have blown a ton of calls (regular officials do that, too, and replay mitigates the worst offenses in either case). The biggest concern is that the replacement refs have proved terrible at projecting authority. The players don’t respect them, and coaches have been screaming at them (to the point that the NFL demanded they dial it back). The result has been chaos: blatant disregard for basic rules, rampant fights, and all sorts of unmentionable things happening at the bottom of the pile.
The dirty secret in all of this is that a referee’s authority derives largely from his presentation. The job is a performance. Last season, there were roughly thirteen penalties for every four quarters, and refs also have to halt the action to reset the play clock, review calls that are officially challenged by a coach, and accept time-outs. That makes for considerable time in front of the cameras. “Someone once said that the referee on a professional football game gets more airtime than some actors do,” says former NFL referee Jerry Markbreit, who was a ref in the league for 23 years. Making it look like you’re in charge is therefore critical. And the scab refs are failing dramatically.
NFL refs have been miked up since 1974, the result of an effort to make the sport more fan-friendly. “We have unusual fouls, offsetting fouls, things that couldn’t be explained without a microphone,” Markbreit says. But the shrewd referee recognizes microphones can be more than utilitarian. “Officials all look the same to the public—they all have the same zebra outfits on—so it’s their presentation that distinguishes them,” he says. “It’s a matter of letting your personality come out; you may not be a better referee than anybody else, but you can be perceived to be better.”
Until this season, Markbreit, who worked four Super Bowls, was one of the league’s nine officiating trainers. “We teach the fundamentals of microphone etiquette: Stand still, face the camera, don’t abbreviate, don’t rush. As in, ‘Holding.’ Pause. ‘Number 47, offense. Ten-yard penalty. First down.’ Nice and smooth.” But when the NFL asked Markbreit and his colleagues to train the replacement referees, they refused and, Markbreit says, were dismissed (the NFL says they’re seasonal employees who decided not to work). “I don’t know how they trained these guys,” he says. “I can tell you that I’ve watched the games this season, and I have not seen any personalities. I have not seen anybody who hasn’t been like a deer in the headlights.”