The Officials Can Take It
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Back when I covered baseball, if an umpire made a controversial call in a game, as a reporter you would walk to the umpires' locker room afterward. You would knock on the door and usually a locker room attendant would answer, and you'd ask to speak to the umpire involved. More often than not, he would come to the door or wave you inside, and he'd talk about the call in question. Usually, the umpire ended up looking better by speaking than he would have looked by keeping silent. He would either admit a mistake or explain why he thought he was right.
Those days ended once I moved over to covering the NFL. In football, the officials are off limits for reporters. If there's a controversial call in a game, a pool reporter might be dispatched to get a quote from the referee and written comments might be distributed in the press box after the game. Personally, I've never spoken to an NFL official after a game about a call that he'd made. I like and respect Mike Pereira, the head of the league's officiating department, a lot. But I have little to no contact with the officials themselves.
After the first major controversy this season involving referee Ed Hochuli, I did a story about the process by which Pereira and the other members of the league's officiating department scrutinize the calls made during games. Believe me, it's extensive. If an official makes a bad call in a game, he is made to realize it and there are penalties that come with it. The league's evaluation system determines which officials earn postseason assignments and which don't, and which are in danger of not being retained for the following season.
So the officials take plenty of heat for botched calls. I understand the league's policy against players, coaches and owners publicly criticizing the officiating. The NFL is the most image-conscious of all leagues, and that has served it well. No one needs James Harrison wondering aloud whether an official might have bet money on the outcome of a game; that clearly crosses the line. But I don't see the problem with legitimate public debate by players, coaches and owners about the performances of the officials. Everyone else in the NFL is scrutinized publicly. The officials shouldn't be any different. Their locker room should be open to reporters after games; any official who doesn't want to speak simply can decline to comment. There shouldn't be fines for legitimate and thoughtful public criticism. The officials can take it.
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