Being an effective penalty enforcer is vitally important, but something officials tend to neglect. Contrary to what some officials seem to think, it is not only a referee-umpire responsibility; it is a crew responsibility.
It is essential that everyone on the crew knows the rules. That should be a given, but I know from experience that it is not. How many times have I heard officials say that one reason they don’t want to be referees is that they don’t want to have to get into the nitty-gritty of rules and penalty enforcement?
In the NFL and college football, penalty enforcement is absolutely a team concept. If a rule is misinterpreted or a penalty improperly enforced, all seven members of the crew get a “ding” or “downgrade.” That means everyone, including the officials who did not call the foul and who are not directly involved in the penalty enforcement, must pay attention to what foul was called and on whom, what the penalty for that foul is, whether the ball was live or dead, what yard line the penalty should be enforced from, what the next down should be, what yard line the ball should end up on and what yard line the ball does end up on after the umpire walks off the yardage.
Although some of us would deny it, referees and umpires are not perfect; occasionally, we miscommunicate or have a “brain-lock,” to put it politely. Then someone else on the crew should step in and set things straight. A crewmate in that situation must have the guts to step in and say something. I would much rather someone question an enforcement and turn out to be wrong than sit back and assume the umpire and I know what we’re doing.
Years ago, I worked a big end-of season high school game. There was a defensive holding on a pass. For whatever reason, I mistakenly tacked the yardage on to the end of the run, which put the team in position to kick a game winning field goal. Yes, it was mainly my mistake, but not one of the other four veteran officials corrected me.
I confused a rule my first year back in the Big 12 after being in the NFL — the yardage involved was different — and again, no one said anything until halftime, which is a tad late to correct errors. The way a foul is reported to the referee is crucial.
In no particular order, the things that irritate me the most are officials who get so excited in reporting fouls that they almost hyperventilate; those that yell and rattle off information a mile a minute; those that don’t tell me the whole story (foul, status of the ball as live or dead, the result of the play, whether it involves a loss of down or automatic first down and whether the clock should start on the ready for play signal or on the snap); two or more officials who talk over each other; and people who get involved but have no information to contribute.
I can’t speak for other referees, but I prefer that teams be referred to as kickers or receivers and offense or defense and I don’t want colors of teams when fouls are reported to me. Something, in other words, on the order of a very calm, “I’ve got holding, number 67 offense, at my flag. The pass was incomplete.” Or “Defensive pass interference, number 27; the receiver caught the ball and went out of bounds.” I don’t need a description (“He grabbed him and spun him around”) because unnecessary information just confuses things.
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First, I suggest keeping your flag in front of your pants with only the “ball” sticking out. Every one of us at some time or another has reached for our flag and then backed off because we re-processed the play and decided not to throw it. Coaches and fans are notorious for going nuts when they see us reach but not throw. If your flag is up front and not in your back pocket, you can reach without anyone knowing it. Also, three-quarters of a flag sticking out of a back pocket and hanging to the ground looks sloppy. Finally, many people think that the less of our flag is exposed, the less it looks like we’re itching to throw it. Appearing flag-happy sends a bad signal to players, coaches and spectators.
On false starts and other fouls that prevent the snap, throw the flag up in the air. You don’t have to shoot for the moon. Especially avoid the high launch when you throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct on a player or coach, because it makes you look mad and out of control. On spot fouls — holding, pass interference, intentional grounding, etc. — you need to get it on the spot as accurately as possible. If you miss the spot, and we all do, adjust the flag to the proper location before reporting your foul to the referee.
Once I hear the foul, I’ll check with the relevant captain, and then I’ll tell my umpire, “Offensive holding. Ten yards from the previous spot,” or whatever. The head linesman starts on the yard line from where enforcement starts and the line judge goes to the line where he thinks the penalty should leave the ball. If all three don’t end up at the same spot, we have a problem. The official who threw the flag watches to ensure that what he called gets enforced properly. The remaining officials should pay attention as well in case there is a screw-up.
The way the referee gives signals (and uses the microphone if applicable) can make or break the perception of the crew. I get away from the players and give the signal from wherever I happen to be, even if it’s on the sideline.
I stop, keep my head up, find a spot in the stands across from me and concentrate on that spot while giving my announcement. I try to make my signal crisp and not to run through the process too quickly. I also try not to look mean, mad or upset. Instead, I just try to look like I’m talking casually with someone. I don’t want to come across like a robot, too stiff. In other words, I try to look like I’m calm and in control. I am convinced that if players, coaches and fans see the referee in a positive light, they will tend to think of the entire crew in that light as well, and vice versa.
Effective penalty enforcement does not simply happen. The crew must work at it. If it does, and if everyone knows the rules, pays attention to what is going on during a penalty sequence and reports fouls completely and calmly, and those not involved are not afraid to intervene if they think a mistake has been made, things will be done properly and you’ll look more competent and professional in the process.
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