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Retired NFL official Walt Coleman is no fan of full-time officiating

Mike Florio

NFL referee Walt Coleman retired from the job at a time when the NFL seems to be more committed than ever to making it a full-time gig. And Coleman doesn’t seem to be a fan of that.

“My personal opinion is the ‘full-time officials’ they have right now is all public relations,” Coleman tells Brad Gagnon of BleacherReport.com. “It’s just the NFL saying they have full-time guys so they can say they have full-time people. I don’t think that going to New York and sitting in an office and watching video makes an official any better. I think the only way to get better is working football games at NFL speed and being evaluated based on what happens in an NFL game. And we are full-time. We work all the games. We work the preseason games, we work the regular-season games, we work the playoffs, we work training camps, we go to clinics, we work on the rules year-round, we obviously have to stay in shape. Most guys have trainers. It’s a full-time [job]. We don’t just pop up on Sundays and screw the games up and disappear and pop up the next Sunday, but that’s what a lot of people think. To say that you’re going to make somebody full-time so he can go to New York and look at video or go watch college officials work, I think it’s just P.R.”

To an extent, Coleman is right; at a time when the growth of legalized gambling will trigger more public scrutiny than ever on officiating, the league needs to create the impression that it’s doing all it can to get as many calls right as possible. To an extent, however, he’s dead wrong.

Saying that the only way to get better as an official is working football games at NFL speed would be like players insisting the only way to get better as a player is playing football games at NFL speed. But players spend hours and hour preparing for those games, hours that help them prepare for the games. And their efforts aren’t distracted with another full-time job at which they moonlight.

That’s the fundamental problem with part-time NFL officials. Yes, it’s a full-time job. Which means that most part-time NFL officials actually have two full-time jobs. Which makes it harder to be as good as they can be at one of them.

Although full-time, year-round officials will have no additional NFL games to officiate, the league can come up with far more than watching film during the offseason months. The NFL can create a virtual reality simulator that would mimic full-speed football officiating, the NFL can instruct the officials to review the rule book until they have it memorized word for word, and the NFL can subject the officials to an extension program which will ensure that they are in the same quality of shape that the players are, albeit several decades senior to them.

The larger benefit comes from having exclusive access to the officials during football season. Consider this quote from Coleman, in the same interview, as he tries to push back against the perception that it’s a one-day-per-week job: “It takes a lot of time and effort just to keep up with the rules. I’ve had plays that have happened to me only one time in my entire career, and when that particular play happens you’re supposed to get it right. Because there are just so many variables — so many things that can happen in an NFL football game. So you have to constantly spend time working on that. Even right now, when there’s basically kind of a dead period, we’re taking rules exams in preparation for next season. It’s much more time-consuming than what most people think. And, as far as I’m concerned, we’re all full-time.”

And that makes the case even stronger for not having a second job that takes away from the overall available time of an official, especially during football season, when part-time officials are devoting full-time effort at the job while also devoting at least part-time (if not more) effort to their regular job.

For Coleman, he has spent Monday through Friday working the family dairy business, something he’s still doing. For other full-time-but-officially-part-time officials, it’s something else that operates as a drain on the time that could be spent doing things aimed at better understanding the rules, better preparing for the games, better training for the demands of the job.

Yes, making officials into full-time employees has plenty of P.R. to it. But making officials give up their other jobs and focus entirely on being an NFL official eventually will make them better officials, if the NFL uses their time wisely.

The bigger question is whether the NFL is willing to pay the best officials what it will take to get them to give up another stream of potentially significant revenue and the security that goes along with not having all eggs in a basket that, with one bad season of on-field performance, could implode.