What it takes to become an NFL Referee
There are 29 people on an NFL football field on any given play. For football fans around the country, that number seems odd. Football has always been a game of 11-on-11, or 22 players making up two teams. There is, however, a third team consisting of seven. Those seven are the guys in striped shirts – the officials.
NFL officials are tasked with keeping players safe and the general supervision of each game. They rule on each individual play and have the final authority on all disagreements and the score. It’s a difficult job that is not for everyone. It’s a long road to become an NFL referee. Here’s how one might get there.
One would think there would be some specific schooling or education involved in the process to become an NFL referee. Surprisingly, there is not, but most officials are college graduates and hold other full-time jobs in addition to working NFL games. All NFL officials belong to some accredited officials association, but there is no particular education program for an official. The road to the NFL, like that for players, begins early.
In the Beginning
Just like players, NFL officials have to start somewhere. Many start at the lowest levels of the game officiating peewee and youth league games. At some point, they make the jump to junior high, junior varsity, and eventually varsity high school football games. The process of advancement may take several years, but it is valuable as officials learn the rules and the mechanics of working a game.
Again, there are no official educational requirements to become an NFL official, but the schooling one receives comes through on-the-job training. After players have worked varsity high school football games, some will have the opportunity to advance to the college level.
Remember, there are different levels of college football. For many officials, the process of advancing to the pinnacle of the game may start at the NAIA level or at the NCAA Division III level. Officials working in the NFL will have served time working at the highest level of the college game – FBS, formerly known as Division I-A.
Officials work games involving the top programs in the country including Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and more. The typical NFL official will have at least five years of experience working at the major college level before making the jump to the pros.
NFL Officiating Department
The NFL does have an Officiating Department that oversees all of the league’s officials. At any given time, there are approximately 120 to 125 NFL officials that can be tasked to work a game during a season. In 2019, the roster of NFL officials included 122 with experience levels from Year 1 all the way to up to 28 seasons.
What many fans of the game may not know is that the NFL Officiating Department has a scouting division. There are roughly 65 officiating scouts that travel the country every year searching for potential NFL officials. At any given time, there is a pool of about 4,000 candidates that are considered to join the league as an official.
Before anyone can become an NFL official, the Officiating Department conducts some testing. All potential candidates must pass a physical screening. NFL officials must be able to handle the physical demands of running up and down the field during the course of a three-hour game.
Each candidate must also undergo a psychological evaluation. The NFL does do some background investigating and seeks input from the college conference or conferences in which an official worked (at the major college level).
The Legends Program
The NFL also considers its former players as a potential talent pool. The league has developed the Legends Officiating Development Program (LODP) to give former players an avenue to utilize their unique knowledge of the game and to stay involved in a game they truly love. Former players can submit their information to the NFL Officiating Department at any time for consideration.
The average NFL official is around 51 years of age, has at least 10 years of officiating experience, and has spent at least five years working major college football games. Officials that are invited to become part of the NFL’s officiating crew are normally assigned to one of six positions: umpire, down judge, line judge, back judge, side judge, or center judge.
NFL officials can advance to the position of head referee, or crew chief. The position is responsible for the overall supervision of a game and gives the final decision on all rulings. Head referees wear white hats while the rest of their crews wear black ones.