Making the Right Call
It isn't easy being a sports official, but modest salaries, lots of travel and constant criticism take a backseat to the camaraderie and challenges of the game
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004
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That's how he found himself on the field for one of the most controversial finishes to a college season in memory. With Ohio State in need of a first down deep into overtime against Miami, a pass play ended in an apparent incompletion. It would have handed the Hurricanes the national championship, but several seconds after the play ended, a flag was thrown and a pass interference call made. Given the reprieve, Ohio State scored and eventually won the game.
As the referee, Christal was responsible for the entire officiating crew. But he was also responsible for watching the offensive backfield on the play, which is why he saw nothing more than exactly what he was supposed to. "People always ask me about that pass interference call," he says. "I say, 'The only thing I can tell you is, the quarterback wasn't roughed.' 'Well, weren't you watching it?' 'No, I've got a job to do.' I watch the snap, the right tackle if it's a right-handed quarterback, and then I live and die with the quarterback."
If he sounds prickly, it's because that play underscores how little the public understands his job. They don't know about the 90-minute conference call every Wednesday night during the season, the hours watching other officials on tape, the years of training, or even the three miles Christal runs on most days to stay in shape. "All anyone cared about on the pass interference call was how late the flag came, but if you watch the play on the tape, it was absolutely the correct call," he says. "The man was held three times on the same play. But because Dan Fouts said it wasn't pass interference, everyone buys into it."
Christal and Bible agree that the second-guessing is the most galling part of the job. Everyone who steps into the broadcast booth feels free to pass judgment, and these renowned broadcasters—all former players, not officials—influence the opinions of millions who might not fully understand the rules. "I worked Texas Tech and Texas [last fall], and a lot of people at our country club were at the game or saw it on TV," Bible says. "I can't tell you how many of them told me, 'Hey, you did a great job the other night.' Well, with all due respect, how the hell would they know?"
When Bible was one of a handful of officials offered jobs by the NFL for the 1994 season, he was thrilled. "I thought, 'This is the ultimate, this is the pinnacle, this is fantastic," says Bible, who had been working in the Southwest Conference at the time. He lasted three years, three of the worst of his life. He'd been refereeing for decades, as opposed to working as a line judge, a back judge or an umpire, but like all newly hired NFL officials, he started in the league in the defensive backfield, watching receivers running at him—a view he hadn't seen in years. He graded out poorly on the weekly reviews that each officiating crew is given. After that, he was afraid to make a mistake.
Getting fired was a relief. He returned to his law practice, caught on with the Big 12, and regained his life. Christal saw it all happen. He was sad to see his friend fail, but happy to have him back in the college ranks.
Having lived through Bible's NFL experience, Christal is the wiser for it. He knows now how special the bond between a referee and his crew is in a conference like the Big 12. He only earns about $875 a week (augmented by a $300 per diem, and airfare) for 10 weeks, as opposed to the $7,000 to $8,000 a week for 16 weeks that an NFL referee makes, but he didn't take the job to get rich, or even to watch college football. "I don't love the sport," he says flatly. "I don't even like it. What I love is my crew. They're family. I can't wait to get on a plane and fly to Columbia, Missouri, this weekend. What I do is fun. I don't know of anyone in the NFL—no one, absolutely no one—who says it's fun."
And yet, no less than any of the players on the field, Christal is a competitor. As content as he is in the Big 12, as rotten as his best friend's experience was in the NFL, he can't stand not knowing if he would have been good enough. So when asked if he would consider an NFL offer if given the chance, he doesn't hesitate.
He has spent his life reaching for the next rung on the ladder, and the NFL is at the top. "It's all about being the best," he says. "I'd like to know if I could do it. I'd work the NFL this Sunday, if I could."
The Art of the Whistle
Shaquille O'Neal takes a pass inside the foul lane and Boston's Michael Stewart knows what he must do. He wraps the Lakers center in the kind of hug that movies end with. A moment passes and then O'Neal suddenly swings an elbow in an effort to get free.
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