Preventive Officiating – Part I

I am a football Umpire:

When the word “umpire” is mentioned, I would think that most sports’ fans would assume that baseball would be the sport. There is also a football official’s position called “umpire”. The umpire on a high school football field is the official whose primary position during scrimmage plays (plays where one team is on offense and the other team is on defense) is roughly 7 yards beyond the forward most point of the ball and in the middle of the defense. I have been an umpire for my high school officiating crew for the past 5 seasons and I will be the first to tell you that, the umpire needs to be very much aware of their surroundings and must ensure that they remain out of the way of players from the offense and defense as well as, the football. I say the football because many high school football coaches (including your’s truly) will design pass and run plays that will use the umpire as a natural barrier to the defensive players making a tackle or a play on a forward pass. It has happened to me many times over the years that a quarterback will intentionally throw a forward pass directly towards the location of the umpire with the hope that the defensive player will not be able to get to the ball without running into umpire. Additionally, when the offensive receiver makes a play for the forward pass the umpire becomes their “blocker” to any potential defensive player which allows the receiver to gain significant yardage after he catches the ball. If that is not enough of a danger, the umpire is standing in the middle of well over 1000 pounds of high school athletes in full football gear, on running plays which are designed to go up the middle of the field. I am not a small guy however, I would stand no chance against a single high school player in full pads and a helmet let alone 10 or 11 of them. One final note regarding the safety of the umpire, the college and professional ranks of football have moved the umpire from the defensive side of the football and re-positioned them in the offensive backfield on the opposite side from the referee partly due to the speed and size of the players and also, to ensure additional protection for the umpire.

Communication during the game:

The primary responsibility of the umpire during any down is to watch the players on the line of scrimmage (linemen) and make sure that any illegal activity such as holding, gets noticed and a flag is thrown. Umpires also have responsibility for the safety of the runners and receivers in some instances. When the offense runs a running play up the middle the umpire needs to ensure that once the play ends that all players exit the pile and that no one is injured in any way. On a pass play, the umpire has a few responsibilities including watching for illegal activity, making sure that only legal players go out for a pass (linemen are not allowed beyond the line of scrimmage on a pass play until the ball passes the line of scrimmage) and getting into a position to be able to see if a receiver makes a legal catch of a forward pass. There are other responsibilities that fall on the umpire like, making sure that the quarterback does not cross the line of scrimmage before he throws a forward pass and looking for any late hits or illegal hits from players going out for a pass. All of these responsibilities are made easier through communication with the players on the field. The umpire is in a perfect position to talk with every player on the offensive and defensive side of the football who are near the ball when they come up to the line of scrimmage. The umpire is also able to talk with the players on defense between downs. I have found that the communication that goes on between myself and the players on the field goes along way to remaining focused on the game, making the right calls and providing feedback. During nearly every snap of the football a defensive player and sometimes the coaches will be screaming about holding. Something to consider, if holding was called during every snap of a football game, games would last 4 hours. The umpire can help by listening to the defensive players complaints. This is a key for me to gain the respect of the players and to also let them know what I am seeing. Sometimes all a player needs to hear is “I am watching” or “I will keep my eyes on it”. When these words are communicated to a player on defense, it usually leads to less complaining. Communication with the players does not always involve a complaint. I had a friend of mine once ask me “don’t you wonder what the players and officials are smiling about?” I don’t need to wonder because, it is a joy to be able to listen to the players talk among themselves and ask questions of the officials during the game or when there is a timeout. I remember one game where a defensive player came onto the field early in the game and said something to the effect of watch out for the umpire, he looks like he has played this game. While that comment made me smile, it sparked some additional comments around why I am still involved in the game today and how much I wish that I could still put the pads on and play! These moments are worth every Friday night under the lights as are the moments when the players say thank you!

Stop it before you call it:

We call it ‘preventive officiating”. The basic idea is that any official is able to stop a situation or argument from escalating just by having a quick conversation regarding an incident that happened or even getting ahead of a potential incident by communicating with the players and coaches. This happens during the pregame conferences with head coaches from both teams. One such example is that nearly every game that I have ever been an official in, the referee has asked each coach (separately of course) if there was anything that the coaches had a concern about or anything special that they were planning on doing. This is done to gain input from the coaches and also to address any potential issues which may arise during the game. It also keeps the officials on their toes, knowing that something is going to be coming. Having the knowledge that a team is going to be running a hurry-up offense helps the officiating crew be prepared by getting the ball ready for play as soon as possible and it also sends a message to the coach that they were heard. When the coin toss is conducted the referee also reminds the captains from each team that they have the responsibility as captains to keep their teammates playing within the rules. Early in the season, I try to get situations to stop before I throw a penalty flag. The main reasons are that penalty flags slow the game down and since it is early in the season, players may need to adjust to players from other teams since, they have only been playing against their own teammates for weeks. One of the things that I try to stop is holding1. Holding in football occurs in many forms. Holding basically happens when one player restricts the advancement of another player from making his normal football play through the use of their hands or arms (I am not talking about defensive players trying to tackle). In the first quarter of early season games, I will approach a player who may have been a little bit “handsy” and say something to the effect of “keep your hands inside” or “keep your feet moving” and I always remind them that it is my job to be watching them. As the game moves along and if I see improvement from the player who has been spoken to, I let them know that they are doing a nice job. Another thing that I try to do is talk with the other officials on the field and ask them to relay to the head coach that “number so and so” is grabbing and not moving his feet. This is a great way to have the coach get involved and most of the time leads to less penalty flags. Communicating with the players, other officials and coaches before a situation gets out of hand or escalates to a point where tempers may flare is one of the best ways to conduct “preventive officiating” and I suspect, makes the game more enjoyable for the players, coaches, officials and fans!

1 – Holding – Wikipedia

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