While every sports fan firmly believes referees are out to get their team, purposely calling games incorrectly, pro sports leagues rarely crack down on referees unless they do something truly ridiculous. Last season, however, the NFL made headlines when it announced that down judge Hugo Cruz was fired after a no-call on a blatant false start during a regular-season game. Here’s what happened.
The controversial call
Hugo Cruz was in his fourth season as an NFL official when the news broke that he was fired. He was a member of Carl Cheffers’ crew during a game pitting the Los Angeles Chargers against the Cleveland Browns. The controversial play occurred when Chargers left tackle Russell Okung jumped before the snap on a play that ended with a touchdown.
The Chargers players appeared to stop after the false start, making it easier for the Chargers to run the play that resulted in the touchdown. It seemed as though everybody in the stadium saw it except for Cruz and the other officials.
The crowd booed, and replays spread across social media to the point where the referees became a meme. Controversial calls are typically answered with a statement confirming or denying a call. In the most extreme scenarios, a referee may be suspended for a week or two, but the NFL went above and beyond.
Despite the game being a 38-14 blowout in mid-October, the NFL fired Cruz for the missed call, citing his performance as the reason. This sent a message to the referees that a certain degree of competence was expected. Cruz became the first referee in NFL history to be fired mid-season.
How the Referees Association responded
The NFL has a reputation for reactionary punishment and non-punishment for players. And the NFL Referees Association (NFLRARA) saw this as a reactionary event based on the scrutiny the play received rather than the severity of its repercussions. NFLRA Executive Director Scott Green minced no words when he challenged the NFL to reconsider.
“The NFL has a troubling history of knee-jerk reactions with an eye on public relations, and it clearly has not learned from past mistakes,” Green said in a statement, per the New York Post. “The NFLRA will protect the collectively bargained rights of all officials and will challenge this reckless decision through the grievance process.”
Although there is merit to the statement that the NFL is reactionary, there is also an expectation that officials perform their duties when a play is as obvious as Okung’s false start.
Lack of adjustments by the NFL
Before the 2019 season, the NFL released the upcoming rule changes. While there was an emphasis on quarterback false starts, the changes were strangely void of anything referencing the situation with Cruz.
One would think if it was worth such a brash decision as firing an official, the rule changes would reflect this. This possibly gave credence to the NFLRA’s statement. Cruz may not have acted maliciously, but he caused the NFL to do something it had never done before.
Many criticized both Goodell for making up rules on the fly and the league for enabling an arbitrary relationship with the rule book, and this may be no different. By not responding through the rule changes, the NFL is opening itself up for a similar situation down the road.