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They’re the elements of an NFL game you’re not supposed to notice despite their conspicuous black and white striped shirts. Underneath those uniforms, with so many wires going in different directions, NFL officials look more like they’re undergoing an EKG test than calling a game. What are all the pieces of equipment NFL officials wear, and how does it all work?

History of officiating equipment

NFL Officials | Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the XFL allowing unprecedented access to on-field communications including conversations of officials, fans are, for the first time, not only hearing the calls in real-time but seeing how the officials interact with each other. This is all a result of the advances in technology used by officials. These advances have been a long time coming.

The initial introduction of technology used by NFL referees happened in 1975 when the NFL equipped its lead officials with wireless microphones. The microphones allowed the referees to explain on-field rulings to a larger audience—both fans watching on television as well as those in the stands.

Beyond the rise in popularity of certain referees like Red Cashion of “First Down!” fame, the ability for fans to hear the calls added credibility to on-field rulings, increased transparency on rulings for fans, and the media, and reinforced the integrity of the game.

For years, however, referees were the only ones wearing microphones. In 2014, that all changed. That’s when the NFL equipped all officiating crews with a microphone and earpiece that allowed them to communicate with each other during the game. 

How do NFL officials communicate today?

Today’s NFL officials wear various pieces of equipment hung around their neck, wrapped around their wrists, and fastened on their belt. 

Every NFL official takes the field with official-to-official radios, also known as “O2O.” The radio battery pack and a push-to-talk button are attached to the belt. The button is over-sized and about the size of a pager, so the official can quickly locate the button, push it, and talk with his counterparts. All the wires run from the belt up under the shirt and connect to the earpiece and microphone.

NFL Referee | Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Each official also wears tracking devices designed to measure the amount of physical exertion during the contest. Following the game, the official receives a report that allows them to plan a recovery regimen.

In addition to all the standard equipment other officials wear, referees wear a separate microphone for the public address and TV announcements. It is attached to the lapel and connects to an on/off toggle switch that is connected to a battery pack. The referee wears a second battery pack just in case the first one fails.

Technology leads to bloopers

Any time you introduce technology, things can and often do go wrong. And when something does go awry, it’s all being observed by a crowd of 60,000 fans and millions watching on TV.

While equipment failures have happened due to a variety of reasons, including inclement weather conditions, it’s generally not technology failures but human error that leads to the most memorable moments. 

There’s a collection of videos online that capture these embarrassing moments that range from referees completely forgetting the players involved in a penalty to a refs open mic picking up a heated conversation between two officials.

There’s no denying that the advances in equipment used by NFL officials has been good for the game. It’s made the game more efficient with officials now able to directly communicate with each other instead of running the length of the field with a call. It’s made it more transparent as we now hear every call when it’s made. And lastly, it’s made it more entertaining as we get to see all the bloopers when they happen in real-time.