WFAA Sports Blogger
Posted on September 11, 2012 at 6:02 PM
Tuesday, Sep 11 at 6:13 PM
The book has closed on Week 1 of the NFL season and it will be interesting to see what fans will remember most from the first five days. If you have skimmed even a few of the online game recaps and the comments sections, listened to talk radio, or followed the trends on Twitter, it is pretty easy to see that Week 1 for many fans was marred by what I will nicely reword as “horrible officiating.”
Replacement refs are in place after the NFL referee union was locked out by the league from a continued labor dispute that centered on pay and pensions. Replacement ref or NFL union ref, the heckles and jeers are a constant. Still, the normal groans about officiating have risen to an all-out hair-yanking scream by fans all over the country since the start of the 2012 preseason. If you even briefly watched the Packers game against the 49ers on Sunday, you saw a very animated Niners Coach Jim Harbaugh. At times the vein in his neck bulged and his mouth was frothing in reaction to many of the calls.
The job of an NFL official seems pretty thankless. One missed call, one late flag and you are subject to all manner of fan rage. Even when the refs get it right, if the call is against the home team or the fan favorite, it is open season for boos. I wondered who would actually sign-up for this type of abuse.
Duwayne Gandy is just a spectator these days but he knows exactly what it is like to walk in the often-ridiculed shoes of an NFL official. Gandy served as a side judge for the National Football League from 1981-1989, the World League in 1990 and the Arena Football League from 1991 until his retirement in 2001. He ran the field and made calls at Cowboys games, NFC and AFC Playoff games and even the Pro Bowl. Gandy now lives in a quiet community in East Texas, but like the fans of the game, he’s kept tabs on the labor dispute between the league and its officials.
“Those officials nowadays make $100,000 a year, we didn’t back in the 80’s,” Gandy laughed. “That’s pretty good payment, but they’re still wanting more. I don’t know if they came up with that idea because, perhaps, the clubs were making more money.”
Gandy worked as a textbook salesman while he also served as a collegiate and NFL official. He is a bit surprised by the union’s stance, but it is a brotherhood and in many ways he is supportive.
He also understands the fans' aversion to replacement refs but wants them to keep something in mind. The man or even now, woman, out on that field is not just any average Joe with a black and white shirt and cap running in off the streets. They are trained professionals, even at the college level. Gandy, like many of his colleagues, even played college ball. He played for Tyler Junior College and Tulsa.
“If they are going to get someone to officiate, someone other than NFL officials, you’ve got to go somewhere to get them,” Gandy said of the replacement refs from the collegiate ranks. “We officials are trained. We didn’t start officiating on this (NFL) level. We worked our way up. Each year, we were taken to a certain place to review everything. We would go through the rules and the locations on the field. They didn’t just say ‘Hey, Duwayne, here’s your August 10 game. Goodbye.’ ”
Gandy first worked with high school games, then the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. After moving back to Tulsa he served as a side judge for Conference USA for 10 years. A friend expressed interest in becoming an official on the big stage, the NFL. Gandy said the process to even be considered at that level is detailed. A small group of less than a dozen people were interviewed and he had to submit the college schedules he had worked for the previous nine seasons. Ultimately he got the call. He does admit that nerves can be a factor for any official, especially those not accustomed to the pace of the NFL game.
“That first game I was pretty riled up,” he said of a preseason matchup in New Orleans in 1981. “But after that, you become focused. You go to work. You do the best you can.”
For fans wondering if the league is oblivious to the calls, good and bad, Gandy assures that they are watching and even more so, giving feedback.
“After we officiated a game, it goes to the league office. They look at the game’s film. If one of us did something wrong, we heard from them and we had to talk to them about it through the NFL office. So they were able to pretty much run us by looking at the game film.”
Gandy has also been on the other side of a strike involving the NFL. In 1987, he served as an official while replacement players were on the field.
“They gave us whistles with a different sound because we knew there would be 80,000 people trying to throw the players and blowing whistles,” he explained. “It was a wild time, but we made it through.”
Gandy is as much of a fan of the game as many of those who shout in the stands. He doesn’t watch every game, but when he does tune in, he, better than most, knows the decision making process of those making critical calls. So what's his observation?
“They have done a pretty good job.”
Gandy humanized a position that I have also thrown my own shouts and grumblings at. This weekend I saw games slowed to a snail’s pace by penalty calls and watched coaches and players exasperated by the actions of the replacement refs. Gandy believes the situation will improve and is optimistic union refs will soon be in place.
To stress his point about the official’s life on the field, he shared a few lines with me from a poem known as The Zebra Shuffle.
A pass over the middle looks complete
The world will stop while they check the feet
The screams for replay getting abusive
But the call comes back inconclusive