Sacramento Bee

Full-time officials needed in NFL
January 14, 2003
By Mark Kreidler -- Bee Sports Columnist

Hey, sensational game coming up between the Raiders and the Titans at the Coliseum on Sunday! Sure hope the refs let us watch it.

If you've heard us defend the art of officiating once, you've heard it -- well, lots more than once. But let's go on the record again, just to be clear: The refs and officials who work NFL, NBA, baseball and hockey games are asked to do the near-impossible, which is to keep up not only with elite athletes functioning at top speed, but also with continually changing rules, interpretations of rules and consequences. It's an ultimate compliment to the ones who do it well, and it's not a job we'd relish.

With that said, lately the NFL officials stink. And the events of the playoffs alone ought to be enough to have Commissioner Paul Tagliabue squirming at his upcoming "state of the league" speech during Super Bowl week -- to say nothing of pondering full-time employment for the refs.

The 49ers-Giants debacle was the first postseason blow, a missed call that resulted not from the officials missing a pass-interference play in front of them but -- far more damning -- from not knowing which Giants lineman was eligible to receive a pass.

But it was the Pittsburgh-Tennessee game that took things to a new level. The officials appeared not only to flat-out miss a couple of obvious calls, including that brutal helmet-on-helmet blow that left Eddie George with a concussion, but ignored Pittsburgh's frantic requests for a timeout before the Titans' winning field goal in overtime.

"I called him by his first name," Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon said of umpire Chad Brown, to whom Gildon could be seen motioning animatedly before the kick. "I said, 'Chad, I want a timeout.' He told me we didn't have any timeouts."

The Steelers had two remaining. You can argue they didn't deserve to win the game, but you can't argue that.

The officiating isn't often under such siege, and the NFL actually has a place it can go with this issue. It's the only major sports league in America that does not employ its officials full time -- owing, ostensibly, to the infrequency of the games -- and that is an avenue that ought to be considered.

Going full time isn't a panacea; it's a step. It would shift responsibility away from league "supervisors" and directly toward the officials themselves, who would essentially spend entire weeks between games grading their performances, going over rules, speaking with coaches and players and owners -- interacting with the people whose games and lives they affect with their calls.

There's nothing sure about it, and league officials will tell you they already apply stringent guidelines and quality-control measures. They do. But there has to be a better option than putting someone like 21-season veteran Gerry Austin, who worked the 49ers-Giants game, into a crew-chief position once a week -- after Austin finishes his day job as president of a leadership development group.

It's the Titans and the Raiders on Sunday. At this point, the league can only hope that the Titans and Raiders are all anyone is talking about come Monday morning.

* The Jacksonville Jaguars are rumored to be interested in speaking with Steve Mariucci as soon as possible, but keep an eye on Detroit. The Lions have Marty Mornhinweg as their head coach, but they'd clear room for Mariucci immediately -- and Mariucci, a Michigan native, might consider that seemingly dysfunctional organization if he could extract a "lifetime job" guarantee of moving into the front office in a few years.

* Scary thought: The NCAA is pondering holding entire teams responsible, via group sanction, for individual players who do lousy in school. What, you want me to take the test for you, too?

* High-school hoops sensation and nonstop ESPN darling LeBron James is driving a Hummer H2 with a base price in excess of $50,000, said to be a gift from his mother. And since Gloria went ahead and sprung for the three TVs and the computer-games hookup, you figure no one will accuse her of trying to cheap out on the rig.

* How you can tell Yao Ming has arrived in America, aside from the part about his playing good basketball: Every sore muscle of Yao's is now treated as a news article, because fans in upcoming cities on a Houston road trip don't want to be cheated out of watching him play. They used to act that way about Michael Jordan.

* All eyes on Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Williams has declared she wants to go through the tennis season undefeated. Not the Aussie Open, the season. Audacious. And, considering she lost only five times in 2002, not so far beyond the pale.

* Grant Hill got more minutes the other night for Orlando than Hedo Turkoglu did for the Kings, and, shoot, Hill can barely walk.

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