DESTIN, Fla. — Nick Saban often finds himself watching an NFL game, seeing a flag thrown and wondering why, like the rest of us. Seconds later, when a retired official appears on the TV broadcast, he gets his answer. He wants the same for the SEC. “Half the people don’t even know the rule. With the difference between college and the NFL, I’m not certain of what the rule is,” says Saban, entering his 13th season as Alabama head coach. “If we could find the right person to do that, an expert who nobody thought had bias, who could explain these things while they happen, I think it would go a long way in at least starting the chain of communication. That’s something I recommended.”
The league is listening. The SEC is studying more and better ways to communicate with the public and media on officials’ fouls, so we all can understand the holding call that brought back a touchdown or the targeting flag that negated a third-down stop. The conference is making changes to a longstanding principle not just in the SEC but industry wide: We don’t comment on officiating.
“We’ve got to do something differently,” says Herb Vincent, an associate commissioner helping spearhead this movement. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done.” This goes beyond releasing more statements in response to controversial calls. Vincent and the league office are in discussions with networks about the possibility of having refs in the booth to provide real-time analysis and explanations on fouls, as NFL broadcasts use. This could come “sooner rather than later,” Vincent says. There are other measures coming, too, like a Twitter account specifically designed to post in-game commentary on close calls. For a preview, check out @NFLOfficiating, an account controlled by the league’s operations center in New York that offers explanations such as this one from last season’s Texans-Eagles game.
This is all an effort to educate the sometimes-misguided masses that project their anger in a way the league is very sensitive to: questioning the integrity of its officials. The SEC is changing with the Twitter times, a shift that stems in part from the viral posts on social media that inevitably result in the exploitation of officials, sometimes unfairly. The hot-button events of last fall—and the social media reaction to them—jumpstarted the project, none more than the record-setting seven-overtime duel between LSU and Texas A&M on Thanksgiving weekend, according to Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of football officials. “I’m not sure we can live in a ‘no comment’ world anymore,” Shaw said. “If you believe the social media view, that was the worst officiated game in the history of SEC football. I’m going to tell you, that crew worked a hell of a game.” The reaction from LSU fans to a slew of late-game calls in College Station sparked the league to grant a rarity: Shaw agreed to an interview with The Advocate in Baton Rouge to explain how the disputed flags were, in fact, correct (though Shaw said last week at SEC spring meetings that a pass interference foul against the Tigers on a two-point play in overtime was one that most officials “in that situation, stay away from”).
The backlash toward officiating has never been louder, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the profession is at a low point. It just operates in a world in which there are more voices than ever. Newspaper columnists and radio personalities aren’t the only ones with a platform. That’s not always good. Social media campaigns can be launched by people who are completely wrong about the rules. “Right now with social media, everyone has a platform even when the person with the platform doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp says.
The league sees what you tweet. Vincent and Chuck Dunlap, the conference’s director of communication, are responsible for monitoring social media on Saturdays in the fall, identifying viral moments surrounding SEC football games. “Chuck might identify, ‘Twitter universe went crazy in Knoxville! What’s going on?’” Shaw says. This begins a process of evaluation that often results in Shaw crafting a statement that might never be published. “We actually build more responses than we actually release,” he said. Shaw himself is not on Twitter. He doesn’t have an account at all, he says, and is only kept updated by Dunlap and Vincent as they gather on fall Saturdays in the league’s video operations center in Birmingham.
Last fall’s officiating outrage extended well beyond Texas A&M’s 74–72 win over LSU, though that was a biggie (beyond its SEC implications, it triggered a rule change to college football’s overtime format). Before that, Mississippi State fans loudly protested a phantom block-in-the-back call against the Bulldogs in a game at Alabama. That came two weeks after a suspect targeting call against LSU linebacker Devin White sidelined him for the first half of the next week’s game against the Crimson Tide, prompting the first of several public outbursts from political pundit James Carville accusing commissioner Greg Sankey and the SEC of ’Bama bias. Headquartered 45 minutes east of Tuscaloosa, the league fights against this perception and has for years. This year was different because of the rampant skepticism across the conference, some of it even from the usually rational corners of the media. “Some of the questions I got from very legitimate reporters when there were controversial calls last year were, ‘You don’t train these guys?’” Vincent says.
The answer, of course, is yes, they do. But how much do we really know about SEC officiating? The training, the background, the accountability? During a 90-minute press gathering at SEC meetings and a subsequent 40-minute sit-down with Sports Illustrated, Shaw opened up on the inner-workings of SEC officiating. For instance, did you know that multiple officials each year are bounced from the league for poor performance? This year, the SEC lost eight of its 74 officials: one to the NFL and seven to either retirement or performance-based dismissal (Shaw declined to get more specific on the latter). Did you know that a good game for an officiating crew could still include as many as a half-dozen mistakes? That’s the standard on the highest level, the NFL. Refs are graded by position in a similar way that a coach grades his players. There are eight different grading categories, including an IC (incorrect call), an MC (missed call) and an IM (incorrect mechanics). A good game, Shaw says, is five or fewer ICs and MCs. The IC is the most egregious of them all. “You can miss a call, ‘Hey, I didn’t see it,’” Shaw says, “but if you put your marker down, your integrity is linked to that marker. There better be a foul.”
Too many ICs and MCs, and you’re sent down, likely to the Sun Belt. It is, for all intents and purposes, SEC officiating’s minor league, and at times, Sun Belt officials are interspersed among SEC crews as a way to ease them into the big time.
Suspensions for incorrect calls and poor performance do exist, but they remain private. And all SEC officials are part-timers; Shaw himself worked at BellSouth and then AT&T while he served as a head referee for 15 years. The day jobs for SEC refs range from teacher to salesman, from insurance agent to small business owner. The SEC pays its officials about $3,000 a game, Shaw says, but that number can vary. There is a three-tiered compensation structure based on performance. And for those conspiracy theorists, the league released to SI their existing conflict of interest policy, which is in the process of being augmented. As it stands, an SEC official cannot work a game that involves any of the following:
• a school from which he/she graduated or spent significant time
• a school where an official’s spouse or children attend
• a school that employs an official’s relative on the coaching staff
• a school where the official has a business relationship
What’s not included in this is a stipulation regarding an official’s hometown or home state, something that is only considered for officiating the SEC championship game, Shaw says.
We all know an official’s job is one of the toughest, most scrutinized positions in America, and it’s only getting tougher. The game is faster than ever, and slow-motion replay’s involvement calls attention to human error. Meanwhile, additional safety rules, though necessary, expand the rulebook. In fact, last week at the Hilton Sandestin, media and coaches learned how difficult it is to determine what is and isn’t targeting during separate demonstrations led by Shaw. Reporters and coaches were asked to watch a video of a collision and vote for whether it was targeting or not using a handheld clicker. Even SEC head football coaches struggled. Voting stats were displayed on a projection screen following each video slide. “We were like 57–43 on every call and we were running it over 25 times on the video,” Saban says. “You got to make those calls in real time. Being an official is very difficult. From a technology standpoint, we’ve fixed a lot of problems, but I do think communicating with the public and getting them to understand ... we all have very passionate fans and they have the right to know.”
But what’s too much communication? Finding that line is part of this summer project. The SEC has, at least for now, ruled out having a pool reporter conduct a postgame interview with the head referee, as the NFL does. The Big Ten sometimes uses this as well. Many agree with Saban that the best course is having a retired official in the TV booth providing an audience of millions with an explanation of the play as a way to avoid any misunderstandings. After all, even the TV broadcasters sometimes appear confused. “Some of our commentators blow it the worst,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward says.
Will this satisfy everyone? “No, because you’re not going to go back and undo [the call], right?” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “They want a pound of flesh and they’re not going to be satisfied in that situation.” Carville will still wear a shirt suggesting Sankey loves the Crimson Tide. Fans will still tweet about rules they know nothing about or attack Shaw for being an Alabama graduate. But at least we’ll all get more communication and education, just like SEC coaches receive each Sunday and Monday during phone calls with Shaw.
Sleep is a luxury for Shaw on weekends in the fall. His bedtime on Saturday is normally well past midnight, and his alarm clock Sunday is normally a call from a frustrated coach. “When they have a question, they have a question,” says Shaw, “and you better answer it now.”