Wednesday, September 10, 2008

For Better Or Worse, Officiating Is All About The Ratings

One of the required caveats to attaining quality assignments is securing high ratings. These ratings come, in large part, from those coaching in the games referees work. This is the most oft-overlooked factor in just how skewed the entire officiating process unfolds. When the referee makes or is perceived to make a mistake in a big game, the questions always wind towards the inevitable: “How did this guy get on this game?” The answer is always the same. The coaches rated him among the best of the bunch, in a local, statewide, regional or national scope.

Phil Luckett. Remember that name? He's remembered as the referee who incorrectly handed the Detroit Lions the football on Thanksgiving Day to begin overtime in 1998. Most fans recall that Jerome Bettis of the Steelers correctly guess the coin’s flip but Luckett failed to acknowledge Bettis’s call. The Lions, of course, took the football and drove down the field far enough to allow kicker Jason Hanson to kick the game-winning field goal to earn the Lions a 19-16 win on national television.

Guess what? Luckett wasn’t totally wrong. In fact, a Pittsburgh sportswriter actually apologized to Luckett in a column after finding that Luckett, by rule, acknowledged the first, barely audible call by Bettis, which immediately was trumped by his louder, more audible second call. Few media members, either watching the game live at the Pontiac Silverdome in suburban Detroit or watching on television, knew the rule. Luckett did, but his nature, including a less-than-authoritative presence, was his own worst enemy.

In the days following the game, Luckett’s name was inseparable from the “how did this guy get on this game” comment. Obviously he had been rated high enough from the NFL coaches and observers to earn the 'referee' designation, assemble a crew and earn a premiere national television assignment. There’s only 16 referees working on NFL Sunday's each year. It's laughable to believe Luckett could fool all these people that often and sneak into the position of NFL referee by accident. In fact, it's not possible. Of course, the media was frenzied with the story and later, Luckett went back to his former Back Judge position. In a game the following season, Luckett was run over by a wide open receiver ready to catch a touchdown pass….and Luckett was soon out of the NFL. But Luckett isn’t the only goat to be remembered. Who recommended him for the referee position? Most important, what criteria was used to make that determination?

Ratings. The silent, unaccountable ratings.

Coaches control a great responsibility in rating officials, but a primary problem is most coaches know little about officiating. Most sports rely heavily on ratings from coaches because, like officials, coaches are always at the contest. Most NCAA sports at the Division-I level also have an observer and a rating from a fellow crew chief, but the rating from the coach is the constant at all levels of professional, collegiate and high school competition.

It's a flawed system no matter how anyone looks at it. Coaches don't know officiating anymore than officials know coaching. I've coached. I'm not good at it and I have complete respect for coaches that make it look seamless. For me to be able to rate a coach and feel like my opinion is unqualified is impossible and unfair to the coaches. Yet the truth remains: The assignment process and the rating process starts with coaches, like it has for the past 100 years.

In researching the origins of the assignment process, I found the assignments were doled out 100 years ago in much the same manner they are today in terms of rationale and merit. There was a rating system in place and it came primarily from coaches. There was a geographical consideration in place, and finally, there was an opinion of merit. The coach or assignor thought the official was competent to handle the assignment.

I spent a recent afternoon with my good friend “Touchdown Jesus”, also known as the library at The University of Notre Dame -- yes, all you television fans, that building wasn‘t erected for football. It‘s actually a real school building and in that building, there‘s books and archives and all sorts of historical reference. Remember it was Lou Holtz, the former Notre Dame coach, who said just two weeks ago on ESPN that he's written more books than he's read in his lifetime.

It's here, tucked inside the considerable archives of the Notre Dame history, where the dealings of a rookie coach by the name of Knute Rockne comes to life. Back them telegrams were today's text messages and letters were e-mail and Internet rolled into one. Contracts were sent back and forth and game assignments were extended to officials deemed deserving just like today. Coaches and departments heads of rival schools discussed which officials were deserving, or not, as the case may be for various reasons. Naturally, within this archive, the letters detailed the officials who routinely received the bigger game assignments, just like today’s assigning programs that detail which officials go where.

In letters between Rockne and Michigan’s Fielding Yost, game dates were set and officials were assigned. The two men openly discussed the abilities of many official and suggested to each other the merits and referrals of available officials. I bristled at the notion put forth in today's Detroit News article by a handful of Notre Dame historians that Michigan and Notre Dame's 35-year hiatus in their football rivalry from 1943-1978 came to pass because of Yost's anti-Catholic belief. That notion would be quickly dispelled if anyone saw the archives I saw.

Yost and Rockne were not at all unlike the coaches and assignors of today who find a comfort zone with certain officials and those officials are then easier to assign to certain schools, conferences and post-season assignments than others. Likewise, younger officials or those unproven are climbing a steeper hill than most, having to overcome getting in the door and then having to deal with a coach that requires you to prove yourself all over again.

That's not to say some things haven't changed. Former umpire Rocky Roe went to the big leagues in no time flat back in the 1970s by today’s standards because someone thought Rocky Roe could umpire, and that somebody had the power to say as much. Today you had better be into a pro school by your 24th or 25th birthday. That buys a prospective umpire four or five years to push their way through the minors and get into the big leagues, where, if they're you’re lucky, they’ll stick. Even if you’re in ‘The Show’ by age 30, chances are you’ll be out by age 50 or so. The days of the grey-haired veteran are evaporating.

The young, mobile, trained official is the new omega in today’s 2.0 officiating world. As for the alpha of how we get those officials, rate those officials and find those officials? It hasn't changed much, since the days of the buggy whip and Western Union.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, and is working on a follow-up title, Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries!

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