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You see them on television all the time, running around tossing yellow flags here and there, moving some chains and the like. The work of a National Football League game official is not easy at all, and to become an NFL referee means a considerable amount of time and dedication.
To become an NFL referee, a person must have at least 10 years of experience officiating organized football games, at the high school, college, or professional level (including semi-pro football); and have membership in an accredited football organization.
The experience requirement means there are no very young referees in the NFL. The average age of the league’s game officials is 51 years old.
The 10 years of experience also does not mean a decade’s worth of officiating kids’ games only. At least half of those 10 years must have been at the college or semi-pro football levels.
Broad Experience Helps at the Highest Levels in the NFL
The NFL understands that nothing beats real-life working experience when it comes to preparing newcomers for some of the highest roles available ~ whether that means its referees, executives, and coaches.
While the league does not have experience or education requirements for coaching, for instance, if you look at how many NFL coaches played in the league you begin to understand the value of high-level experience.
There are no educational requirements to become a game official in the NFL, though some people say having an undergraduate degree helps.
Being an NFL game official does require a lot of memorization, specifically all the rules. Any longtime ref will tell you, it’s 1 thing to miss a call on the action; things happen. it’s something far worse if a call is missed by poor interpretation (or understanding) of the game’s rules.
- Physical fitness. Football referees run consistently for entire games (which last more than the official 60 minutes, which means also standing on your feet for 2 to 3 hours at a time). For this reason, a focus on cardio exercise is recommended for NFL game officials. They just cannot afford to get overly tired, or out of breath, during game play.
- Get certified. The league requires this, but as you gain experience toward the required 10-year mark, these certification associations can connect you with games to officiate near where you live. How to find such an organization? Attend youth football, high school football, or semi-pro games and try to chat with the officials doing those games. Usually they’re more than happy to talk about the endeavor.
- Work. The only way to meet the experience requirement is by working games, and in the process make contacts within the industry. The greater the variety of games officiated helps nudge the NFL to consider applicants. Think of refereeing lower-level football games as building a robust resume.
- Keep records. If applying to the NFL to referee, they will request a lot of information regarding your game officiating background. Especially for the last 3 seasons prior to the NFL application, carefully keep track of your officiating record. Take no chances: be sure to write down every single time you officiated a game ~ plus the dates and teams involved! Details like this help.
- Study. While there is no formal education requirement to officiate NFL games, refs are expected to know the rule book thoroughly, as well as all the hand signals. This studying must be done each year, as the NFL rule book is changed and amended.
Individuals thinking about dedicating the time needed for the experience to work as an NFL ref should know that the job doesn’t pay particularly well. In fact, officially the gig is considered a part-time job by the NFL. Referees work “regular” jobs away from the NFL to pay the bills.
For instance, away from the NFL, Referee Shawn Hochuli is a wealth management advisor.
Reports estimate that the average game official in the NFL makes about $205,000 annually from the work. Some longtime NFL referees retired with a salary of $250,000 annually.
The pay of each official depends on the position they hold among the ref crew (there are 7 on-field ref positions, up to the highest paid, the Referee who wears the white hat indicating he’s in charge); and how long they’ve been in the league.
The top game NFL referees are assigned for the Super Bowl ~ which comes with a nice bonus of $40,000 to $50,000!
Because they are part-time employees, the NFL does not provide health insurance to the refs. However, some do qualify for a retirement plan offered by the league.
The job is harder than it looks. While it is true that referees only work half the year, they do a lot of traveling and have to constantly deal with expenses like hotels and food. Weekends of games, of course they are separated from their families.
However, the most difficult parts of serving as an NFL game official is dealing with abusive coaches; and potential for injury.
The NFL is as fast and big as ever. Players are bigger, and many move faster than they did in the past, for a variety of reasons (e.g. better training and nutrition, better cleats).
This mass plus speed poses great hazards for NFL referees. They can suffer concussions during collisions, bruises, and even broken bones! Unlike the heavily armored players, referees only have their knicker pants and jersey as protection.
No umpire or referee in any sport is ever perfect. Fans can be brutal on referees who miss calls; and NFL coaches can be worse.
Unlike baseball, which gives umpires great latitude in terms of ejecting players or coaches for a variety of broken rules, the NFL does not have a mechanism for punishing unruly coaches.
Many NFL game officials are tied to the sidelines to serve their position ~ which means there’s nowhere to hide from a particularly nasty coach during games.
Some animosity goes years back between NFL coaches and certain referees. Not all forgive and forget easily.
While there is no single attribute that makes a person more apt to succeed in the NFL as a game official, the following are physical and mental traits that certainly help.
- Thick skin. Umpiring or refereeing in any sport is hard, and it can be made harder if game officials let a particularly nasty coach get on their nerves. Rarely, if ever, will you see an NFL referee arguing back against a coach. They might try to calmly explain a rule or reason for a call, but all in all it’s rare for good NFL game officials to lose their cool.
- Patience. Bad calls happen, and when they do, referees aren’t expected to try to make it better afterward, as in making “make-up calls” in favor of a team who had the misfortune of suffering from a bad call. Football is a brutal game and tempers often flare. There is no magic pill to make players or coaches calm down. Usually it’s only a matter of letting time pass, which requires patience. Great patience also helps with coaches who seem to be troublemakers each contest.
- Good eyesight. While football refs aren’t expected to consistently make calls in terms of mere inches (like baseball umpires), they still are expected to see well. It’s not always easy to tell if a hand is grabbing a jersey, or merely pushing against it. Football refs also are expected to make out-of-bounds calls that could very well depend on a small portion of a cleat touching the sideline or not.
- Teachable. Most NFL refs must have good memory, because the NFL rule book changes every year, and it never gets shorter. The league adjusts rules annually, often adding significant new wrinkles. Refs learn certain skills from watching or talking with veteran game officials; and by trial-and-error out on the field. Most successful football referees have their own tricks of the trade intended to make officiating easier, and quite often, safer.
- Stamina. As noted above, NFL referees are expected to exert a tremendous amount of energy during games, sometimes running at full-sprint speed to keep up with a play (think kickoff or punt returns).
- Other qualities. Integrity is a huge attribute to have in serving as a game official in any sport, as the temptations of gambling are never far away. Judgment of course is big, as is hustle. The best have courage to step into seemingly dangerous situations. And coaches might cite consistency, or common sense, as things they like with referees.\
Question: What age was the oldest NFL referee ever?
Answer: Age 70, accomplished by a couple of officials: Tony Corrente, and Mike Spanier, who retired after the 2019 season.
Related article: What is the Average Age of an NFL Referee?
Q.: When do NFL refs get to retire?
A.: Unlike other sports, such as baseball with its age-55 maximum cap for umpires, there are no age limits for NFL game officials.
Q.: Can NFL referees be fired?
A.: Yes, and some do get terminated. The NFL has a program where game calls are reviewed after the fact, and referees who make too many bad calls too often can find themselves out of work.
Q: How much do NFL referees earn on average?
A: On average, NFL referees earn approximately $200,000 annually. This figure can vary based on experience, tenure, and specific roles within the officiating team, but it serves as a general baseline for their earnings.
Q: Can NFL referees bet on games?
A: No, NFL referees are strictly prohibited from betting on games. The NFL has a clear stance against gambling of any form by its personnel, including referees.