Late in the afternoon on Sunday, Jan. 20, not too long after the clock hit zeros on the controversial NFC Championship Game, a decision was made. The officials who had worked that game and missed a crucial pass interference call on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman -- one that helped decide the outcome of the contest -- would have to be moved to another hotel.
With a police escort, the seven-man crew was transported out of the heart of a seething New Orleans and into the safer ground of the suburbs. The phone calls and banging on doors and threats had become too much. One member of the crew was convinced to hand over his phone after his personal number made it out into the public and the angry calls had started rolling in. When the crew met in the hotel lobby for dinner, they watched the AFC title game, but they spent much of it listening to and reading criticism of what they had done wrong earlier in the day.
The week that followed brought nonstop outrage, from SportsCenter breakdowns to commentary on "The View" to "NFL Bleaux It" billboards bought throughout the South. In Washington, D.C., on the same day that a former presidential campaign manager was arrested by the FBI and a government shutdown was lifted, a Louisiana senator pleaded his case on the floor of the U.S. Capitol that his home state had been robbed by poor officiating. The besieged crew's "white hat" referee, Bill Vinovich, officiated a college basketball game between BYU and St. Mary's and was greeted with boos, shouts of "Was that pass interference?!" and a sign in the student section that read: "Bill, don't screw these Saints!" Oh, and then NFL league sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter that there was concern over the fact that four of the seven officials were from Southern California, home of the Rams.
During his "State of the Sport" Super Bowl week news conference, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was peppered with questions about the state of officiating, specifically in light of the New Orleans mess. And while making the media rounds two days earlier to promote Super Bowl LIII, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was peppered with as many questions about a week-old game as he was about the game coming up.
In 2017, the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) conducted an exhaustive survey of its membership, with nearly 17,500 respondents answering 162 questions about their experiences and concerns. Nearly half -- 47.9 percent of male respondents and 44.7 percent of females -- said they have felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior. When asked about the state of sportsmanship, 57 percent of the officials surveyed said it was getting worse.
In April 2018, three youth basketball players ran onto a Savannah, Georgia, court during a girls game and punched and kicked a 33-year-old official. Over the summer, a Wichita police captain was found guilty of battery and disorderly conduct after shoving a 17-year-old female youth basketball official. In September in Conway, South Carolina, a volunteer coach of a middle school football team was arrested for pushing down and slapping a 70-year-old referee. At nearly the same time in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a viral video showed a Young American Football League official scuffling with a player and then being body-slammed by a parent who took to the field to break up the fight. And YouTube still receives significant traffic from an incident in 2015, when two Texas high school football players, following the orders of their coach, leveled an official and then speared him in the back.
Being a sports official is typically a part-time job, although the NFL does have 24 full-time officials. It doesn't pay great. There are year-round meetings and endless homework. No one cares who you are, what your name is or where you come from unless you do something wrong. There is increasing concern about personal safety in a world where sportsmanship appears to be going the way of the leather helmet. And if you reach the pinnacle of your profession, the payoff is becoming the punchline of late night opening monologues. That was certainly the case for the NFC title game crew and that rancor shows no indication of slowing down anytime soon.
So we are left with one simple yet complicated question. Honestly, why in the world would anyone want this job?
"That's an easy question to answer," says ESPN NFL rules analyst and former referee Jeff Triplette. You can almost hear his smile through the phone. "We do it because we love it."
In the days since the New Orleans debacle, that same phone has crackled with conversations and dinged with texts from football officials ranging from the NFL all the way down to high school, eager to chime in. Even when the rules don't allow them to talk to media, they still do so, albeit off the record.
Every single one of them echoes Triplette's explanation:
"I love it."
"I do it because I love it."
"Do I still love it even with all the bulls--- we have to put up with? Damn right. And so do the guys who were in New Orleans last week."
"To do this, you have to love it," continues Triplette, who worked as an NFL official from 1996 to 2017, after nearly two decades as a college official and highly decorated North Carolina high school referee. He is certainly no stranger to controversy or public skewerings -- just take a look his Wikipedia page. But there's also no questioning the sincerity of his answer.
"I started when I was in college at Wake Forest, officiating baseball, basketball and football to make a little money as a student. From day one, I was getting screamed at. But I loved it. I loved the fact that I was still able to be on the field, participating in sports, for years and years after most people are done."
In that same NASO survey, participants were given a list of reasons why they started officiating and why they continued to do it. More than half checked the box marked "For the love of the game."
"I think it's probably easy for people to roll their eyes at that response, but it's a fact," said Rogers Redding prior to the 2018 season. "We do it because we love it, and you have to or I don't think you'd be able to do it all."
Like most NFL and NCAA football officials, Redding had two careers. And like most of his colleagues, his weekday job was prestigious. He is a college professor and provost-turned-NCAA national coordinator of officials, blowing his whistle in Texas high school football games and moving up to the Southwest Conference and SEC, eventually becoming the SEC coordinator of officials and then holding the national role. He has spent the past couple of decades constantly fielding calls and taking meetings with angry and confused coaches and television commentators.
In other words, he's been a human piñata. But he's always been cool with that because that's always been the gig.
"Going back to working high school games, the level of emotion hasn't changed when it comes to fans and coaches. It's always been intense, and it should be," he said. "What has changed are the advances in technology. Social media has certainly presented unique challenges for officials."
In the social media age, there are no secrets. Anonymity was once the biggest plank of an official's platform, but those days are gone. Ron Cherry, a longtime ACC "white hat," used to preach to his crews, "We're going to paint the house tonight. They supply the paint, we just put on the overalls and go to work." In short, do your job and leave because no one came to the stadium to watch the officials throw flags. But any longtime college football fan likely knows the name Ron Cherry because his profile rose in the social media age, with his trademark smile and a 2007 "giving him the business" penalty explanation both going viral to the level of spawning parody Twitter accounts.
But social media also has emboldened the masses. Fun exchanges turn ugly, and while officials no longer enjoy the shield of relative anonymity, those who come after them still do. Angry fans are no longer limited to shouting their displeasure from Section 315. Now they tweet precisely what they plan to do and Google officials by name to find out where they live and work.
When officials are approached today to have genuine discussions about rules or even a missed call, most are more than willing to have those chats. But such in-person civility is dying, replaced by digital anger.
"Social media means that everyone considers themselves 'journalists,'" Redding said. "So officials are under scrutiny around the clock, not only during the games, but in their everyday lives. I tell officials to assume that the camera is always on and pointed directly at you. That means leading lives that reflect integrity all the time. All aspects of your life. Not just during a game."
In addition to a profound love of the sport, officials do what they do because they know how important it is, and they want to be right 100 percent of the time. And they are pretty darn close. Before Mike Pereira became a rules analyst for Fox Sports (the originator of a role that now exists at every network, adding another pile of kindling to the fire of scrutiny surrounding officials), he was a college and NFL official. When he took over as NFL vice president of officiating in 2004, he was the first to evaluate his officials on more than what they did in penalty-related situations. Instead, he looked at how they performed on every single play of the game.
Against an average of 157 plays per game he found an average of four mistakes made by the officiating crew. The majority of those mistakes weren't egregious missed calls a la Rams-Saints, but rather tiny stuff, like missing a half-grab that could have been a holding penalty or an official being a few steps out of position per the taught mechanics on a certain play. Pereira estimates that when taking all of the possibilities into account, there are 10 decisions that must be made by the crew on each play. That's 1,570 per game.
Even with all of that taken into account, he calculated his officials' success rate was 97.45 percent. "But then," Pereira likes to say, "there's that damn 2.5 percent."
Only a tiny percentage of that number are the NFC Championship-level mistakes. But those are, of course, the mistakes that will live longest in the minds of fans.
Perhaps the bigger problem is how long they will live in the minds of young would-be sports officials. Barry Mano, founder and president of NASO, started publishing Referee magazine in 1975, still the go-to publication for sports officials from the NFL to Pop Warner. In the end-of-2018 issue, he listed the 10 biggest officiating news stories of the year. The frequent physical attacks on officials was on the list, but it ranked behind another growing issue: "Officiating shortage draws national media spotlight."
At the end of the 2017 NFL season, four white hats representing 88 years of experience retired, including Triplette. And last Sunday's Pro Bowl featured "co-referees" to say farewell to two more retiring white hats, Walt Coleman and Pete Morelli, 30- and 22-year veterans, respectively. But the problem isn't saying goodbye. It's replacing them.
"We are a very graying industry," said Mano, who was a longtime college basketball official. "In the 1970s, officials who were starting out were in their 20s. Now they are in their 40s. At the highest levels, officials aren't returning or they aren't being retained. At the beginning levels, they just aren't signing up. High schools and youth leagues are canceling games or moving games from Friday to Thursday because there's no one to officiate those games."
The NASO launched a "Say Yes to Officiating" campaign in 2018, promoting recruitment and mentorship. It's too early to measure its impact, but the obstacles in front of the program are well-known. Low pay and a gruelingly slow ladder to the top have both proved to be turnoffs for youngsters. But the single biggest reason more are choosing to sidestep a life in stripes is obvious to everyone in the industry.
"You can't be someone who gets their feelings hurt," says Mano, laughing ... but not joking. "If you do this, then at some measure, you love it when people boo ... No one is sicker than the men who officiated that NFC Championship Game. No one. I can't imagine how they feel. But how they handle this and how the NFL handles this, it's important. It sends a message. These are human beings in a non-100 percent business. They deserve to be treated that way. Every official does, just as every player and coach does, even when they make a mistake."
Mano unknowingly foreshadowed the comments made by the NFL commissioner on Wednesday of Super Bowl week. Goodell has been criticized in recent years by his league's officials for not standing up for them strongly enough when they believed he should've done so. This week, at least, he seemed to change that tune. "... We also know our officials are human, and that they're officiating a game that moves very quickly, and that they have to make snap decisions under difficult circumstances and they're not going to get it right every time ... the game is not officiated by robots. It's not going to be."
The aging football officials of today hope that young aspiring referees hear more of that compassionate support.
"My message to any young person who might be thinking about officiating is do it," says Triplette. "The lows, they are pretty low. But the highs, they win. The friendships and the experiences, the memories, they win. It's hard. But anything worth having or doing is hard. Why did I do it? Because I loved it. Even when it didn't love me back."