Officials question NFL's process for selecting Super Bowl referee
After a season of replacement referees, botched calls and lockout-driven controversy, several NFL officials remain deeply upset about the grading system used to choose the referee for the Super Bowl.
"You see grades being changed, constantly being changed, only for certain people," one official told Yahoo! Sports.
"It's disheartening," said another official, "and you never think at this level that would happen. It's the individuals running the show that have created this mess. If you talk to 121 guys, there will be 100-plus who say the system is horrendous."
At issue is an allegation that the NFL selects who will referee the Super Bowl based on favoritism, not solely on merit. This leads to Jerome Boger, the NFL's presumed selection to referee Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3. On Monday, the website footballzebras.com reported that Boger received eight downgrades during the 2012 season and all eight were reversed. Multiple sources with knowledge of the grading system made the same claim to Yahoo! Sports.
Though officials who spoke to Yahoo! Sports say Boger is far from the worst official in the game, they question his assignment to this year's Super Bowl.
"[Boger] shouldn't even be eligible for the game," one said. "Everybody basically knows what's happening. You see when grades appear, and when grades mysteriously disappear. Any incorrect call or missed call will disappear for no reason at all."
Asked about this, Michael Signora, vice president of the NFL communications department, wrote in an email to Yahoo! Sports: "There is no merit to the suggestion that Jerome Boger's grades were treated differently from those of any other official."
Signora continued: "Every official has the opportunity to have preliminary grades reviewed, and no downgrade is removed unless there is a consensus among the supervisors to do so, and without the approval of the head of the department. Fourteen of our 18 referees had grades modified in the course of the review process."
Signora called the anonymous claims "inaccurate and unfair."
[Related: 49ers' 16 most significant non-Super Bowl games since 1977]
The larger issue, according to the officials, is a system that many feel is flawed. Officials are graded after each game by a group of retired referees. Any downgrades or "dings" for mistakes during the game can be appealed by an official, and are then reviewed by supervisors and the league. Mistakes made in games can be altered or erased by the league with no explanation. Officials are overseen by Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations, who has been at his position since Roger Goodell promoted him after becoming commissioner in 2006. Requests for an interview with Anderson were declined.
Officials told Yahoo! Sports the mystery of league decisions adds to resentment among their peers. "It takes the integrity away from the process," said one official who, like the others, commented anonymously out of fear of repercussion from the league. One even said the referees at their annual preseason clinic try to predict who will be chosen for the Super Bowl, even though that assignment is supposed to be based on a season's worth of games.
"Before one snap, you may already know who four of the seven Super Bowl refs are," said one. "Who they favor and who might be next. Some guys are Teflon, other guys are Velcro."
In explaining the standards for refereeing a Super Bowl, Signora told Yahoo! Sports "the criteria for referees to be eligible for the Super Bowl is three years experience as a referee [and five years total] and playoff experience as a referee. That criteria has not changed since at least 2007." However, for officials at other positions to be eligible, Signora stated they must also have worked "either a conference championship game assignment or a playoff assignment in the Wild Card or Divisional round in three of the past five years."
Boger has worked three divisional playoff games as a referee in nine years, the third of those coming earlier this month. He's never worked in a conference championship game or Super Bowl in any capacity.
Signora explained that the reason the standard is lower for referees is because they tend to come into the league at different positions and accrue postseason experience at those positions. When promoted, the referee is basically starting over in terms of tallying playoff experience. The different criteria accounts for the referee starting over when they are promoted.
Signora wrote that "all postseason assignments are based upon the individual performance of each official at their respective position. The highest-rated officials at each position that qualify for the Super Bowl are selected to work the Super Bowl."
This process was implemented under the watch of Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating who now works as a TV analyst for Fox Sports. Reached by phone Thursday night, Pereira said the previous system elevated the best crew – not the best individuals at their respective positions – to the conference championship games and Super Bowl, but that was changed because some crew members got that assignment without much experience. "When you should have earned the conference championship game, it didn't happen," Pereira said. "That’s when we changed it. As an alternative, it could be three wildcard games in five years."
Pereira believes that under his watch, there was adequate transparency, feedback and fairness. But asked about the grading system, he said, "Is the system perfect? No. I don't think the system is perfect. I think the whole thing, they need to take a look at the whole evaluation system."
He also added: "It's been a very difficult year for officiating. There are a lot of ill feelings toward the league. I think probably every year some people feel someone didn't deserve the Super Bowl. This year, with the contentiousness that's out there, you're trying to take shots at the league for what's happened before [during the lockout]. I don't think it's an issue involving Boger."
Boger was at the center of a controversial play near the end of the season, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton kicked Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Boger did not penalize Newton, but rather Kelly when he retaliated.
"It was a mule-kick after a play, and the referee is just standing there," one official said. "You shake your head."
One official brought up "diversity" as a reason for assigning Boger to the Super Bowl. Boger is African-American, and that official said, "This is a way to take care of that."
Another person with knowledge of the referee grading system elaborated. "Is the diversity issue at work? There may well be," he said. "There have been crews that have been all white. Are there minority officials that are top-notch officials? You're damn right. There's no doubt that it is one of the things that the league has on its agenda. It's certainly a goal and objective to have diversity."
[Related: NFL reaches out to players to head off tragedy]
The league has come under fire recently for its lack of diversity in head coaching hires. There were eight head coaching vacancies at the end of the 2012 regular season; not one African-American was hired. The NFL has vowed to redouble its commitment to the Rooney Rule, which calls for teams to interview at least one minority when hiring a new head coach or general manager. Boger would not be the first minority to serve as head referee for the Super Bowl. Mike Carey worked as referee in Super Bowl XLII.
Yet one official said the grading system has caused problems for many years, and is only coming to a head now because of Boger's inexperience.
"You gotta have the best people doing the biggest games," he said. "It hasn't been the case for 10 years."
Although some officials accuse the league of favoritism, others feel the lack of explanation for grading alterations is the larger problem that leads to mistrust. Decisions are seen as arbitrary, so those who land the top job at the biggest game of the year are regarded as being favored.
Pereira says he understands the frustration. "There's too much looking back and not enough training going forward," he said. "Train people instead of using a grade to attach. Officials need to be more involved, not just seven guys in New York issuing the grades. The officials need to be involved in the system instead of being judged by it."
That seems to be the consensus among many officials.
"I think the league has recognized they may have a challenge here," said one official. "They're trying to come to grips with it. … If someone doesn't give you honest and direct and actionable feedback, how are they supposed to get better? That doesn't exist in the current system."
NFL video from Yahoo! Sports
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Lakers will pay for doubling down on D'Antoni-Nash reunion
• NCAA's botched handling of Miami case strengthens case for athlete endorsements
• Kentucky may not make the NCAA tournament