The NFL took an important step Wednesday in what has been a five-year process to convert its officials into full-time league employees. After months of negotiations prompted by the NFL competition committee, the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) agreed to the structure of a modest transition during the course of the 2017 season.
How will this work? What will this mean for the industry? And, most importantly, will it improve the state of officiating? Let's take a closer look -- even closer than we did in this post from December.
Hold up. NFL officials weren't already full time?
How could that be?
The current structure is a vestige of an otherwise forgotten era when almost everyone in the game -- including players and coaches -- were seasonal employees who had other jobs in the offseason. To this day, the NFL's 124 officials work on a contractor basis. They are paid well, but most of them have "day" jobs during the week and throughout the offseason.
Some, including referees Walt Anderson and Terry McAulay, are officiating supervisors at the college level. Others have careers entirely unrelated to football. They are attorneys -- including referees Ed Hochuli, Ronald Torbert and Clete Blakeman -- as well as insurance agents, high school principals and financial advisers.
What's the problem with that? Officials work one game per week for less than half the year.
This is where the issue gets sticky. Not everyone thinks that converting officials to full-time status would, by definition, improve their performance in games. It's not as if they'll be able to officiate more games, and thus get more "practice," if they are full time. In March, NFLRA executive director Scott Green said it is a "complete misnomer" to suggest that officials weren't already full time, in terms of time commitment relative to the job requirements.
It appears the NFL has been more focused on finding common ground for the process of conversion, and the requirement of full-time status, than the details of what would come next. In a news release, the league wrote that the implementation of the program will "provide the NFL officiating department, in consultation with the NFLRA, the opportunity to identify the most effective ways to utilize the off-field time for game officials throughout the calendar year."
In other words, we'll see what the best and brightest will come up with.
But somebody must have really wanted this.
Oh, without question. It's simple, in theory. How can the NFL claim to be officiating its games as well as possible if its officials spend most of their professional time in unrelated pursuits? New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton called the situation "madness" last year, reflecting the growing objections from coaches, players and fans to non-full-time status.
So are you saying this is a semantic change for appearance sake?
Not really. Ultimately, this shift can improve officiating. But it might not be reflected in terms of on-the-field accuracy, which is actually quite good on a per-call basis. You'll more likely see it manifested in off-the-field arenas, such as the development of rules that are more easily officiated, via offseason working groups and discussion among full-time officials who otherwise wouldn't have had time or the organization to dive into such matters.
It also stands to reason that full-time officials can be in the league's New York offices on a regular basis. There is no substitute for in-person communication on issues that arise.
What do officials think of this?
The reality is that they agreed to the possibility in 2012, when the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLRA was reached. But the league had never approached the NFLRA with a structure that would entice officials to change their career aspirations. Financial details weren't immediately available, but both sides must feel confident that there is proper incentive for at least 10 percent of the current officials to be interested.
This is targeted only at referees, right?
No. Any of the league's 124 active officials can apply. Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira once endorsed a plan to make the league's 17 referees full time, but Green and the NFLRA insisted on opportunity for all.
Pereira's thinking was that the referee, as the crew chief, would provide maximum value to the full-time program. Green, however, said that a blended group would maximize knowledge and experience.
So how will this work?
Beginning immediately, any of the 124 current officials can apply for full-time status. They will be allowed to work outside of the league, according to the agreement, but their NFL duties must be given top priority.
"It is definitely a priority shift," Green said. "The NFL will have to be their priority employer. But there is no restriction other than 'be available,' and ultimately the NFL will decide if you're able to do that."
Will the full-time officials have to move or commute to New York?
No, but they will be required to travel to meetings on 48 hours' notice.
Can the NFL require an official of interest to accept full-time status as a requirement for continued employment?
No. The application process means that it cannot be made compulsory.
Is this change permanent?
Actually, no. The sides amended the CBA to reflect the details of the program, but it is technically a one-year experiment that would have to be renewed in order to proceed beyond June 2018.
Why would an official take the plunge without a guarantee it will last beyond one year?
Some officials are retired or semi-retired from their current job. Some feel confident they can keep their side work while prioritizing the NFL. Remember that the cap at this point is 24, which is only 20 percent of the current roster. Advanced math suggests that 80 percent of officials in 2017 won't be full time.
Will we know the identities of the full-time officials?
That's a fair question, especially from those who are conditioned the utter secrecy most NFL teams operate under. It's also understandable to wonder whether the league would want to create a public caste system. What if an official who is not full-time makes a mistake that impacts the outcome of a game? How will fans interpret the assignment of full-time officials to various games?
Plans are still being formulated, but my understanding is that the league plans to be transparent here and will announce -- eventually -- which officials have taken full-time positions. The exact timing is unclear, however, because the hirings could extend throughout the 2017 season.
Anything else, smart guy?
That'll about do it, for now ...