Pity the poor NFL official. He works tirelessly all year long under the doubting watch of rabid fans, the intense pressure of nervous league officials, and the unrelenting glare of television cameras. He finally earns a trip to the postseason with his A+ work and, in a fraction of a second in front of millions across the nation ... he's a bum. A total bum who cost a team the game and added to the NFL's oft-shaky reputation.
Who in their right mind, really, would want to be an NFL official?
With all the hype that surrounds the Super Bowl — this year it's Super Bowl LIII, in Atlanta on Feb. 3 — it's easy sometimes to dismiss the striped men on the field. But just like the players for the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, who earned the right to be at this year's Big Game, the NFL officials look at the Super Bowl as the pinnacle of their profession.
But, boy, getting there can be absolutely no fun at all.
What It Takes to be a Super Bowl Zebra
First of all, we should explain the mention of "men" when it comes to officiating in the NFL: The Super Bowl always has been called by men. All men. For every one of the LII games. And it will be again in 2019.
That, though, could change in the near future. That's because for the first time in NFL history, a woman, Sarah Thomas, officiated a 2019 NFL playoff game. Thomas was the down judge during the divisional-round game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers. She is the league's first full-time female official.
But Thomas is not eligible to officiate the Super Bowl yet because of the first requirement that the NFL has for Super Bowl officials (and it has nothing to do with gender). A Big Game official has to have at least five years of experience. Thomas just completed her fourth.
Super Bowl officials — here are this year's — have to have an on-field assignment in three of the previous five postseasons, too, or call a conference championship (that's the step just under the Super Bowl). Thomas is going to have to work on that next season; she wasn't picked to be on one of this year's two conference championship crews.
Most importantly, all officials for the Super Bowl — seven of them, not counting alternates and those in the replay booth — have to be among the best at what they do, as determined by the NFL's rather rigorous internal grading system. (Thomas was in 2018, as shown by her divisional-round playoff assignment.)
Intangibles come into play, too, when the NFL's senior vice president of officiating, Alberto Riveron, gets together with others in the league office to shape an official officials roster for the postseason.
"What they will do, because it's so close [among the top officials], they will actually bump somebody up who hasn't been to a Super Bowl and move them up into the slot," says Ben Austro, the founder and editor in chief of the football officiating site footballzebras.com. This year's game in Atlanta will feature three officials new to the Big Game.
"It's not strictly on grades. They do have some ability to add some subjective elements," Austro adds. "And that also includes examining an official for leadership qualities; making sure they're maintaining pace of game, making sure they're decisive in their calls, all these little intangibles that they can kind of add up and say, 'You know what, they may not have been the top official, but we see these other qualities that make him — or her — a Super Bowl official. So we're going to push this person up.'"
Making the Grade
That first step, getting good reviews, is undoubtedly the toughest hurdle to overcome. In such a high-profile sport, covered so closely by the media and dissected so thoroughly by fans, NFL officials are under a constant, unrelenting microscope. Errors — with that much scrutiny, some always pop up in the postseason — can be career-ending and league-shaking.
Nobody, though, looks at NFL officials — for the record, the term "referee" applies only to the highest-profile football official; the others are the umpire, line judge, down judge, field judge, side judge and back judge — more closely than the league itself.
A group of official supervisors reviews every play of every NFL game — almost 40,000 plays in 2017 — and grades every one of the 124 NFL officials on each play. The reviewers judge the officials not only on what calls they make, but also on those that they miss. The reviewers also look at whether the officials did their jobs in the right way; whether each was in the proper place at the proper time looking at the proper part of the play (officials all have specific responsibilities on each play).
A typical official, the NFL says, is evaluated on the basis of some 2,100 plays over the course of a regular season.
"They may look at some routine play ... 20 times. If there's something a little more involved, it may be more. So it's a very meticulous review of every single play and every [camera] feed," Austro says. "You get a mark down if they see something wrong, a minus-one, and if they agree, it's a plus-one. The pluses and minuses are all tallied up."
At the end of the year, the officials are stuck into three tiers. Those in the bottom third are in danger of losing their jobs. The middle tier is generally safe. The top tier, where the best of the best reside and the difference between those in the striped shirts is razor-thin, is where the league gets its postseason and Super Bowl officials.
But, yes, even the best of the best make mistakes.
Overall, despite weekly fan outcry over controversies — Was his knee down? Did he bobble the catch? Was that pass interference? Did he cross the goal line? — NFL officials are as close to perfect as anyone can reasonably expect.
"Generally, although they never came out with an exact number, it's generally believed to be better than 98 percent or above in accuracy rating," Austro says, "which is phenomenal when you compare it to anything else in sports."