Why Are NFL Referees so Old?

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NFL referee Bill Vinovich explains a call.

Referees in the NFL have a tough job. They have to instantly make calls and split-second decisions when athletes are moving at fast speeds, making it hard for the refs to keep up. While refs get calls right most of the time, fans — and sometimes broadcasters — tend to call them out when they blow a call. One quality that many NFL officials have in common is that they are older. You may be wondering why that is, so let’s take a look at why most NFL referees are so old.

It takes years to get to the NFL

For football players, it takes years of playing youth football and continuing to play in high school and college before they finally get a chance to make it to the pros. The same is true for referees and other game officials.

The league wants to ensure it has the best referees possible, so it has instituted minimum requirements before someone can even be considered to become a game official in the NFL. A candidate must have a minimum of 10 years of officiating experience, and at least five of those years must be at a varsity college level or in another professional league.

The potential official must also belong to a professional organization or have a history as a football player or coach so that he knows all of the game’s rules. Candidates need to be in top physical condition to be able to run up and down the field, and they must have officiated a certain number of games over a three-year period.

The best of the best

Regardless of what you may think of specific NFL referees or the league’s 122 game officials as a whole, they are the best of the best when it comes to officiating football games, as evidenced by the stringent requirements the NFL has put into place to be up for a job at the highest level of the sport.

The league wants to make sure each of its officials on the field has a strong knowledge of the rules and a good history of officiating games so that he is able to enforce the rules in real-life situations. Having good officiating is essential to the success of the NFL because if the refs blow a lot of calls, fans will become upset with the officiating and may lose interest in the league — or, even worse, think that the refs are intentionally making certain calls to give certain teams a better chance of winning games. 

Can age be a detriment to referees?

With refs needing a minimum of 10 years of experience before being considered for a position in an NFL, they are not going to be too young when they finally make it to the league. And once someone becomes a game official in the NFL, he usually doesn’t’ want to give up the job and wants to keep it for as long as he can. That is why most referees in the NFL are so old.

The problem is that can be detrimental to their performance and, thus, the integrity of the games. Even though refs needs to be in good physical condition before they can get the job, the older they get the harder it becomes for them to keep up with the players, who are great athletes and in many cases can be half of the referees’ age.

Age can also be a factor in the calls the officials make. The older they get, the worse their eyesight is so they may have a hard time seeing certain parts of the action, including where to spot the ball after a play. Thankfully, replay can now help to correct any of those mistakes that occur.