Thursday, September 18, 2008

Writers, Referees Have Words In Common

The referees of the National Football League (NFL) will never be confused with literary wordsmiths, but the two entities, seemingly polar opposites, have one surprising commonality.

Word specificity.

Certainly, the aforementioned statement requires some consideration that extends more than a few city blocks away from the basic teachings of Journalism 101. However, the necessity of exacting word language is one not reserved exclusively for authors, editors and writers. It’s something referees and umpires utilize on a daily basis -- on an immediate stage -- in front of a demanding public. While some of this is staged and rehearsed several times over, like the classic drone of “Holding on the offense” (hardly prize-winning copy in anyone’s opinion), the more obscure the call and the more the play or foul impacts or changes the outcome of the game, the more intricate the required wording.

In a professional football game earlier two seasons past, a foul by the offense was committed while the clock was counting down the final seconds of the last quarter. With but eight scant seconds remaining, the home team completed a long pass to warrant a possible game-winning field goal try, but the play was flagged for illegal motion by a wideout. The crowd buzzed with anticipation as the officials huddled around the Referee, wearing the white hat. Finally, he gave the preliminary signal, a formation penalty against the offense that was booed lustily. The Referee finally stepped forward to an open patch of grass facing the press box, turned on his microphone and announced to 60,000 fans in the stadium and millions watching on television:

“Illegal motion by the offense – the receiver failed to set before the snap. The penalty is enforced from the previous spot by yardage and 2nd down is repeated. By rule, any penalty assessed against the offense in the last minute of the game with a running clock requires a 10-second runoff. The regulation four quarters of the game is now declared complete. Overtime procedures will now commence.”

That might seem like a convoluted way to say overtime, but tell that to 60,000 passionate fans paying $60 per seat, a pair of million-dollar coaches with a livelihood depending on winning and losing football games and millions watching on television. Does anyone think fans will be satisfied with, “The penalty, illegal formation against the offense. By rule, the quarter is over. Overtime.”

Not on your life.

Words like enforce, assess, declare and commence are all very active, precise words. They’re not only required, they embolden the game arbiters, forced by trade to make game-altering decisions. The articulate, exacting words also lend credence to the decisions they make without schmaltzy salesmanship.

Speaking as a collegiate and high school official, I’ve learned to be very careful in the words I choose when a delicate situation presents itself. To wit, instead of telling a coach I ejected No, 19 for fighting, I might instead tell the coach, “No. 19 has disqualified himself from tonight’s contest for fighting, and by rule, cannot sit on the bench for the remainder of the contest.” Notice the difference? I ejected the athlete in the first sentence. In the second example, the player disqualified himself. The player’s actions disqualified him, not the referee. A subtle difference that can go a long way in the immediate perception a coach forms of my ability to handle a situation.

Sports writers are long known for their usage of active verbs and colorful depictions, as well as the occasional absent-minded question, but their flair for words is slowing crossing from the press box to the sidelines. Therefore, the days when vernacular on the field matched the verbiage in the locker room, or 'jock talk', are over. Today’s major college and professional arenas are entertainment venues. People pay over-the-top fees to sit court side during National Basketball Association (NBA) games to listen to the dialog as referees defuse tempers and soothe the occasional feathered ego of multi-million dollar athletes.

Mike Pereira, the NFL’s officiating czar, tries to place his officials in situations that cultivate and play to each official's professional acumen. "I don’t teach the word script. The thing is you have to be natural. If I’m script-specific, I’m nervous and follow what everyone else says, "Pereira explained in a 2007 interview with for an article that was scuttled by Referee Magazine. "(As an official), you have to put yourself in comfortable position, because there’s a number of different people you'll have to communicate with, including coaches, players, administrators, even other officials, that an official has to communicate within many different situations."

Pereira also said something in the aforementioned interview that remains relevant today: "There are two different angles when the play takes place. The way it’s seen on the field, and the way the play is seen from on the sideline. "

Most football fans are well-versed in last weekend's call by Referee Ed Hochuli in the waning minutes of Denver's game with San Diego, won by the Broncos after a Denver fumble was incorrectly called an incompletion by Hochuli. It was the considerable communication skills of Hochuli, specifically his being forthright in the moment on the field and ultimately, his honesty about the grief he felt about his missed call that has quelled the situation as an unfortunate miss of a crucial call.

Even in failure, the specific word can paint a picture that leads toward redemption.

An official's elocution, however, has a thin line of demarcation. Say too much and risk muddling an already hotly-contested issue. Say too little and you might be seen as aloof or worse. It’s something longtime football referee Dick Honig mastered from a dual officiating career. Now retired from the field or court in the Mid-American Conference or Big Ten, Honig operates Honig’s Whistle Stop, a national, retail distribution business outfitting officials. Honig says being a wordsmith isn’t just in what you say, but how little you have to say to say it.

"Short and sweet leaves little room for repeat," Honig said in the summer of 2006 from his Ann Arbor headquarters. "It's important you make sure to answer the question - in full - without trying to say more than you have to. Often it's what is said that has nothing to do with the call or non-call that gets guys in trouble."

~ 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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