Digital DNA - Chapter 3: A Ref's Life

(This is Chapter 3 of a seven-part short story by David Grant)

“I told him there’d be 15 more yards if he kept talkin’!” Everyone in the room laughed, as Bobby Blackmon, the head of officials for the IFL, walked into the room, just as one official was finishing a story about dealing with a head coach during one of last season’s games. Every year just prior to the regular season, all officials would gather at league headquarters to review last year’s calls, review any new rule changes, talk about mechanics and watch a lot of video before the new season got underway. Many of the officials worked during the off-season at other jobs, so they needed some prep time to get their focus back to officiating football. Mechanics can be thought of as the logistics for how the officials move around on the field during a game and what their roles and responsibilities are. Positioning is critical, with regards to penalties, managing the overall aspects of a game and ensuring player safety.

Bobby Blackmon was a tall but slender type with wire-rimmed glasses, a lot like those worn by Benjamin Franklin. He was a type "A" personality, so you either liked him or you didn’t, and Bobby never went out of his way to make you like him. You got what Bobby wanted you to get, which could be flowers or a slap up side the head. He figured you decided what you got, and he just delivered what you wanted. There were many in the league’s officiating ranks that didn’t care much for Bobby or how he managed the officiating department in general. Particularly the older officials, who had been with the league awhile and had been through a lot of changes, didn’t care for his "throw us under the bus" public view of the officials. But Bobby certainly took credit for things when they went well, but it was always the officials on the field who took the blame when something went wrong. The veteran officials had pioneered many of the more modern changes, with regard to on-field administration of the game, and Bobby had refused to fully implement many of their recommendations, particularly with regards to training and mentoring. It was his way or the highway, and that "rankled" some of the rank-and-file.

“Alright, good to see everyone back. Yes, even you, Johnny.” Again laughter could be heard in the room. John McNamara was a veteran IFL official, having spent his entire 20-year career at the umpire position. John had nearly seen it all, and the number on the back of his jersey proved it. The lower an official’s number, the longer they had been in the league, and no one had a number lower than John. He had started with No. 63 and over the years had earned the No. 2. John wore that number like a badge of honor, and he had so much respect from the other officials that many thought the number should be retired when John finally decided to hang up his whistle. While hard nosed, he was known by the league and coaches as a great game official and had nearly a perfect fairness rating. He had worked a record five championship games but had missed last year’s championship, only because he hurt his knee on a pass play during the playoffs. Bobby didn’t think much of John. Bobby thought Johnny, as Bobby often referred to him, represented the "old guard" and that he was not open to change and would balk at the new training methods Bobby wanted to introduce to the officials. There are seven officials who work a game, and each has a responsibility, with regard to which players to watch, types of fouls to call, the enforcement of penalties and overall game administration, including timing and ball placement. Bobby wanted new training methods customized for each position.

John’s view was that you "graduated" your way from the bottom of the crew, which was usually the field judge or side judge position, to the top, which was the referee position, and that customizing training would prevent officials from being able to move up, because the league would use the "we have invested too much in you at your current position for you to move up" excuse. Except seemingly for John, no one seemed to understand that the fallout from this philosophy would play heavily into the officiating department’s future or the way games in coming years would be officiated, although John highly suspected that Bobby knew but he hadn’t figured out why. He didn’t like being called "Johnny," by the way, but he knew it was just Bobby’s way of trying to get a rise out of him. He also didn’t like the fact that he felt Bobby had been "given" the job as head of officials, when other candidates were better qualified. Bobby had never been a game official at any level, and John felt Bobby did not understand what it took to be on the field, much less be in charge of over 100 men and women who worked hard to prepare for games each week during the season.

“This year, our training will not be on the field as much as it will be watching video of previous games. All game footage from last year has been downloaded to the Hall of Fame. Yes, that’s right, the Hall of Fame. The Hall is our new digitized data repository, and it has the most sophisticated video equipment you will find anywhere. We’ll use that data exclusively to watch hours and hours of game footage. I want everyone to know each player’s tendencies so well, that you can call a game blindfolded.” Bobby stated. “Isn’t that what we are doing now?” one official replied, again to more laughter in the room.

“You field judges are all the same!”  Bobby laughed back. The field and side judge positions work with the back judge and are known as "deeps." They are called deeps because they line up 20-25 yards down field from the line of scrimmage, also known as the spot where the ball is when the players line up to start a play. Bobby’s impression of deep officials was that they were the ones with the least amount of experience and therefore were also the most vulnerable at making mistakes. Let’s face it, a blown pass interference call could change the outcome of a game, and Bobby didn’t like phone calls from irate coaches on Monday mornings, so he wanted all deep officials to work as hard or harder than the other four officials near the line of scrimmage.

The remaining officials who make up a crew of seven are the line judge, head linesman, umpire and referee. All four have a good view of the start of any given play and are usually the most experienced. The referee position was the "top dog," also known as the "crew leader," and is the official seen on television making announcements during a game. A younger official’s future for staying in the league and moving up on a crew could ride heavily on how well the referee liked you. For John McNamara, the referee position was not something he wanted, although the league had asked him to move in as a crew leader many times before. But each time he had turned them down. He didn’t really like the spotlight, which is where he thought the referee was all the time. No, he preferred to be the umpire. The guy who, other than the referee, was "second" in command of the crew and carried much of the responsibility for ball placement and penalty enforcement. The "un-official" code of officials is that while the referee is the one in charge, it is the umpire who "makes" the crew.

If you were a game official, you knew no crew could make it without a veteran umpire. John was satisfied that he had become the "Jedi" of umpires everywhere, and each game was his show to run. And the perks were great. As an umpire near the middle of the field, you rarely, except as part of any pre-game meetings, dealt with furious coaches during a game. It was also your duty as umpire to "welcome" young officials, especially field and side judges, onto the crew by "managing" their initiations. While John had many ways of welcoming new crew members, his favorite was to throw the field judge’s socks into the shower just before everyone dressed for the game. The squishing sound, made from those wet socks in a new pair of shoes as the crew walked to the field, was music to John’s ears. One field judge heard of John’s diabolical stunt and brought two pairs of socks. John fixed that by hiding the field judge’s flag. Needless to say, that field judge had no penalties during that game.

“We’ll be so good at administration that the game will move more quickly and with more predictable results. That will cut down on costs and save the league lots of money,” Bobby stated. “Money isn’t why we do the games!” John grumbled. “Why don’t you just replay last year’s games and not have any games this year?” John continued. “Now everyone listen and listen good, I’ve promised RB that we’ll not influence the outcome of any game this year, no more bad calls. Got it?” Everyone nodded, as that was what the officials tried to do anyway. John understood what Bobby meant, but he was always the one to say what was on his mind, whether it was popular or not. After two weeks of intense video training using video from last season’s games, which had been fed to league offices from the Hall of Fame, the officials left and headed home. The regular season was just a week away.

“Welcome to DTN, Rich!” Director Alge Matson blurted out. “Thanks, I think,” Rich responded. “Awww, you’ll be just fine, Richie. Just come on over here and meet the gang, and they’ll have you readin’ that tele-prompter thingy in a jiffy!” Rich Hamilton was the league’s MVP the previous year, but a career ending hit in the championship game prematurely ended his career, and so he decided to try the broadcasting booth at DTN, the Digital Television Network. DTN was league owned and well run by a former major broadcasting executive named Barry Andersen. Barry had won numerous awards at rival FTN and had been instrumental in forming the new network, which would serve up football to fans 24/7. Rich had been a popular player and had spent most of his career with the Los Angeles Surfers. The team retired his number, 12, and he was thinking of running for president of the players union, but he decided to try broadcasting to see if he could keep his popularity ratings up. Rich liked the spotlight, and television was certainly going to give him that.

“Rich, I am Keith Hawthorne and this is Mindy Culberson, we’ll be working with you in the broadcast booth, as well as the anchor desk each week, as we call games and break down footage.” “Nice to meet you both,” Rich responded. “Let’s take you over to the editing booth first and get you familiar with setting up clips for our flagship show in the evenings called ‘Football Today.’” “Sounds good,” Rich said.

Mindy Sanders-Culberson had been a news and sports junky since her college days. Mindy played softball, volleyball and was a point guard on the school’s basketball team. She had twice been named All-American and had just missed the cut for the Olympics. She had worked on every yearbook and school paper staff since her freshman year, having been on her high school newspaper staff for four years, prior to enrolling at Union Falls University. Her long desire had been to be with a major network, but life kind of got in the way. She met her husband while working as an intern with a local television station that had sent a crew overseas to visit U.S. troops fighting another war in the Middle East. After she married Alex, they had little money, so Mindy stayed with the local station to make ends meet. She got her break at DTN, or so she thought it was a break to be at a fledgling new network, when one of the producers saw her local sports show while traveling to her hometown. The job at DTN meant moving from the Midwest to the west coast, but so far, things seemed to be going well for her. Mindy’s passion for sports broadcasting, writing and editing became clearly evident every time she went on-air. Mindy was blonde, 5'6", and if it was true the camera added 10 pounds, with Mindy it didn’t matter. Her go-to favorite outfit was a fire engine, red wool skirt and matching jacket with a crisp, white, button-down blouse underneath. Mindy always had a dream to be in management, and she knew the broadcasting profession had the infamous "glass ceiling," but that didn’t keep her from making sure that the top button on her shirt was always open. She was the first female sportscaster to add a light touch of glitter-style makeup to her upper body, which she was pretty sure attracted viewers’ eyes to the tanned skin under her dress shirt. Her real trademark, however, was her dark blue eyes, and she would use one to wink at the camera in order to tease the next featured story coming up that "you just didn’t want to miss." Sending viewers to a commercial break by announcing what was coming up next was how it was done, and if she wasn’t going to get that management position on talent, she at least wanted to add "favorite sportscaster by men ages 18-49" to her resume.

“OK, Rich, over here are two DVRs or Digital Video Recorders and two consoles. Each DVR gets video from the new data center at the Hall of Fame and sends it to us, or we can send it to them. Incoming footage is downloaded into our DVRs and then edited into clips we use for the show using these consoles.” “Sounds interesting,” Rich said. “OK Rich, give it a try,” said Mindy. The new team sat down and started working to edit clips for that evening’s broadcast. “What are all those numbers running at the bottom of the video?” Rich asked. “Oh that’s time-code,” Mindy stated. “Time-code?” asked Rich. “Yes, it allows us to sync each video frame for accurate editing and acts like a heart monitor or time and date stamp,” Mindy said. “So each frame has its own identification, sort of like a fingerprint?” Rich asked. “That’s right,” said Keith. “We often refer to it as video DNA.” Their training session concluded with several pieces clipped from last year’s championship game, which was still fresh in Rich’s mind.

The move to the broadcast studio was an easy transition for Rich, and he sat down to analyze video with Mindy and Keith. An hour later, he joined them on the air for their first broadcast of Football Today. “Good job on your first broadcast, Rich.” Mindy said. “Yeah, nice work, Rich,” Keith added. “Thanks, it was fun,” Rich said. “I’ll see you all tomorrow for another round, and hopefully by midseason I’ll be ok!” Rich said with a smile. Mindy and Keith laughed, and it looked like the team was set for the season to start.

David Grant is a former NCAA official and currently resides in southern California. He is the site's NFL Briefs writer.

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