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August 27, 2012
With referees locked out, inexperienced and unstudied replacements have turned the NFL preseason into a comedy of errors. But will anyone be laughing when the games start to count?
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August 27, 2012

Black And White, And Green All Over

With referees locked out, inexperienced and unstudied replacements have turned the NFL preseason into a comedy of errors. But will anyone be laughing when the games start to count?

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"If you want the game to be as safe as possible, you need the people who live the rules to police it," says former Giants wideout Amani Toomer, who played during the 2001 lockout. "Players are already figuring out what they can get away with. It's going to get very ugly."

In nonlockout years, the NFL's officiating ladder mirrors that of a classic apprenticeship. "You start at peewee," says Green, "then work junior high, jayvee, high school, small college, then D-I," usually over an average of 15 years. Once in the league, the dues-paying persists. A first-year official is virtually never given the head referee's white hat or assigned to a crew alongside another rookie. The burden of acclimating to the regular season is just too heavy.

"The difference in intensity from the preseason, when players are trying not to get hurt, to playing in a stadium full of 85,000 fans is astronomical," says Parham. "Those seven refs that are going to work Giants-Cowboys [in the Sept. 5 season opener] will be scared to death."

Not sold on the scariness? Consider the complexity of the pro rules and the seemingly infinite permutations that compel weekly conference calls to understand them. The official NFL rule book is 75,934 words long. The NFL case book, full of practice scenarios and rulings, is 77,260. The NFL instant-replay case book is 25,617. And the Penalty Enforcement Hopper book (hopper being ref-slang for play), the widely accepted manual that Hochuli wrote to help officials categorize infractions and determine their enforcements, is 11,519. Together, that's 190,330 words—almost 10,000 more than the New Testament. (The Bible doesn't even have diagrams.)

Invariably, during lunch at his day job—student accounts manager at Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.—Parham finds himself heading to the library, NFL case book in tow. Hochuli, a partner at the Phoenix law firm of Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, still spends 10 hours per week, minimum, reviewing the rules.

Such workloads are typical. The NFLRA estimates that for 85% of its membership, officiating is their second job. That list includes Green, a partner at The Lafayette Group, a government contracting firm, who points out, "We've had guys lose their [non-NFL] jobs because of the time commitment."

Sunday-specific though the gig may appear, that commitment includes a post-game crew breakdown on Monday; the NFL's grading of each official's last game, which arrives on Tuesday; challenges for that grade on Wednesday; a test on Thursday—usually 25 multipart questions; travel and a pregame crew meeting on Saturday; and then the big, public exam on Sunday, followed by return travel.

Added up, it can be grueling. But at his desk in D.C., where a scrap of loose-leaf with a mnemonic device for under-two-minute rules hangs on the wall, Parham longs for those days. It's funny, he says: When he made his first NFL crew last year, his boss at Johns Hopkins gushed up and down the hallway. His Facebook account exploded with congratulations whenever he was spotted on television.

And now? Like Hochuli, he can't help but feel the sickness. Parham misses being tested, he admits. He even misses being booed.

Follow @SIPabloTorre

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