The Toughest Position in Football

The Umpire Does Have a Great View of the Game

Quarterbacks get slammed from their blind side.  Receivers get belted at full speed.  Linemen get elbowed and clawed and stomped on.  Running backs get caught in the middle of pileups.  All of that stuff happens to umpires.

Fans tend to call all football officials “referees”, or sometimes they call them “you stupid #%*&*!”  Technically, only one official is the referee; the other 6 have other titles, one of which is umpire.

None of the officials has it easy.  For starters, they suffer the humiliation of having to wear uniforms that appear to be costumes for a skit about prison life.  And unlike the players, they don’t have the protection of helmets or pads.  That vulnerability has a lot to do with why the umpire’s job is so tough.

Look at his position on the field (click to enlarge photo).  The umpire lines up 5 yards off the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball.  That’s always the case in college football; it is sometimes true in the National Football League, for reasons we’ll go into momentarily.

By contrast, here are the positions the other officials take at the start of each play.  The referee (the only guy wearing a white hat) is 10 yards behind the quarterback, and to his right if the QB is right-handed.  The head linesman is on one sideline, straddling the line of scrimmage.  The line judge takes a similar position on the opposite side of the field.

The back judge and side judge are both 20 yards deep in the defensive backfield, with the former standing on the same side of the field as the wide receiver(s).  The field judge is 25 yards deep, on the tight end side.

Take a look at the photo again.  Of the 7 officials, only 3 are visible:  the referee, standing in the end zone; the back judge, who sort of blends in with the reserves on the sideline; and the umpire, who is standing where the play is about to engulf him.  The others are all more or less out of harm’s way.  The umpire is in harm’s focal point.

Football uses the term “incidental contact”, which means “no harm done”.  As far as I’m concerned, incidental contact is what happens in a crowded elevator, not what happens on a football field.  Even though a player didn’t mean to hit you in the Adam’s apple or kick you in the shin, it still hurts.  That’s why umpires need to have a high pain threshold and good medical insurance.

National Football League executives were made aware that during the 2009 season, umpires had been knocked down by players more than a hundred times.  At least 2 of those collisions resulted in serious concussions and  3 required surgery for orthopedic damage.  That doesn’t include numerous stitches for other wounds.

As a result, the NFL changed the positioning of umpires at the start of the 2010 season, placing him next to the referee.  In some crucial situations, however — when the offense is inside the 5-yard line, for instance — the umpire goes back to his traditional post, right in the thick of things.

Why anyone wants that job is beyond me.  The pay is OK, but not spectacular, your name only gets mentioned if you make a questionable call, and you sure wouldn’t do it for your health.  Maybe the attraction is this basic — it must be satisfying for umpires to know that they’re as tough as anyone else on the field.  Maybe tougher.

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