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NFL Referee Mike Carey is Trading in His Stripes for a Suit

CBS is adding former referee Mike Carey to its NFL broadcast team. It's yet another sign of the league's trend of growing more and more complicated. Is football running the risk of alienating fans?

by Josh Zerkle
Jun 27 2014, 3:45pm

Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports

The longtime NFL referee decided to hang up his white cap earlier this week, ending one of the more distinguished careers that one could ever hope to have in stripes. Carey spent 24 seasons as an NFL official, with all but five of those as a referee, and served in that capacity during Super Bowl XLII. But now, Carey will trade in his No. 94 for a "seat" in the broadcast booth, serving as a rules analyst for NFL Network and CBS, beginning this season.

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Carey's move mimics the jaunt made by former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira, who actually worked on Carey's crew for two seasons. Pereira joined FOX Sports as that network's de facto Phone-A-Friend in 2010, promising to be on standby in his own personal "command center." Whenever a broadcast team needed or had time for an explanation of what was happening on the field, the game would cut to Pereria.

Which was often.

Despite the title of "rules analyst" reeking of nerdiness and ennui, at least a few more people with the credibility, on-field experience, and dulcet clarifications like Carey will be in demand, finding themselves in broadcast booths and behind studio desks as the NFL heads into its 95th season this fall. The role holds value in an NFL telecast, if only because the over-legislation of the game may be leaving the average fan behind.

A former NFL game official might be the only one immersed in the NFL's legal on-field code to do this sort of job; those guys might have the toughest jobs in all of sports. They're not just watching for traveling or whether the baserunner beat the tag. Any given NFL contest has seven on-field officials watching countless activities from play to play. And in any given year, the NFL rulebook will run about 120 pages long. That doesn't include the league's "What If" casebook, which runs about another 90 pages. That's a lot of material to digest and interpret in the blink of an eye. And remember that the NFL's referees aren't "full-time," despite the fact that on game weeks, they're devoting well over 40 hours to their craft (a great read about a week in the life of an NFL referee ran last year at MMQB.com).

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And yet, the league seems dead-set on making the job more difficult with each passing year. With the help of a nine-person competition committee, rules are added, subtracted, or tweaked every season. Every season. Usually they're jammed into the book because of botched calls from a season or two ago (i.e.: higher goalposts and fumble recoveries reviewable by replay, added this year). Some address player safety (the roll-up block expansion passed for this season, and the horse-collar tackle ban in 2005).

And some seem to serve no other purpose than to confuse people. Try explaining "modified sudden death" in 25 words or less. Or understanding why most players didn't want to wear knee or thigh pads before the league made them mandatory last season. And don't get me started on the K-Ball.

What about the simple stuff, you ask? Get this: the NFL has more than half a page of rules describing what constitutes a "catch." I dare you to read this whole paragraph without running toward your bathtub with a toaster:

Item 1: Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact
by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the
field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control,
the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

There are six of those "items," but I chose this one (from the 2013 rulebook) because of its significance to the Detroit Lions and their first game of 2010. If you were living under a rock during that time, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson had a last-minute touchdown taken away from him for not finishing what Pereira lovingly refers to as "the process of the catch." (That phrase, for the record, does not appear in the rulebook. But I digress.)

And so the NFL's Legalese Era began.

But while Johnson's "catch" was, according to the letter of the law, not actually a catch, objectivity would meet its match with the inception of its current "defenseless" player protocol. After being expanded from kickers, punters and quarterbacks in 2010, the NFL went full-hog in flagging hits targeting an opponent's head, neck or sternum area. The league recognized the chore it was serving up to its game officials, and asked them to...say it with me...err on the side of player safety.

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Player safety is an easier issue to get behind in, say, a class-action lawsuit surrounding concussions or painkillers. When it involves your team on the short end of a 15-yard penalty, less so. The enforcement of those new rules drew the ire of many fans, and the seemingly inconsistent enforcement of them gave the media (and even some players) a chance to chime in.

It's much harder today than it was even five years ago to watch an NFL game and instantly understand if that was a catch, or if that was unnecessary roughness. The game is awash in legalese that the typical Sunday fan can't interpret on his own.

Enter the rules analyst, parading over the 50-yard-line on his white-and-black striped horse to save the day.

The addition of the rules analyst to the broadcast team presents another burden for fans: it takes the regular analysts off the hook. Most (if not all) analysts are former NFL players and coaches who can't seem to find the league's updated rulebook from the moment after they leave the field or sideline or wherever. One such analyst, whom I won't name here (cough Jon Gruden cough) even brags about how little he understands today's NFL rules, like a kid in the back of the class trying to play off his unfinished math homework.

There may be an attitude within the offices at 345 Park Avenue that the ambiguity of these calls helps inspire debate within the game. Surely, many Twitter battles have ensued over questionable calls while that game's referee wanders under the hood (Pereria, for his part, does this as well as anyone—as he probably should—when you think about it).

Sure, these calls inspire debate, but is that how to best sell the game? Through semantics? Contrived drama is not a long-term business strategy, unless you were the producer of "Jersey Shore." Even wrestling fans got tired of the referee not seeing their hero take a steel chair to the back. We're one step away from golf, when fans will be calling the broadcast truck to rant that a guy sure as hell did not have two feet inbounds. Is that what we want?

My guess is that it isn't. The trend of over-legislating on-field action is bad news for a gridiron game that may be gaining television eyeballs, but losing youth participation. Some of that decline, surely, is due to parents freaking out about concussions. But the eminent frustration of watching review stoppages and rules deciphering on Sundays won't help sell the game to younger or international fans.

Look at most of the sports gaining ground now in America. They're the simpler ones, the games with the fewest rules. Lacrosse participation, traditionally limited to the East Coast, has finally spread westward. The Frisbee-tossing mayhem of the game known as Ultimate is a mainstay on college campuses. Even rugby, whose rulebook sees little revision from year to year, has made significant gains stateside.

Mike Carey retired from the NFL, but will still have a job in pro football. He will because the NFL seems content with creating a game that, more and more, needs to be explained to us. If nobody can figure out what a catch is, how will we know who won?

And a better question: why would we care?

***

Josh is a freelance sportswriter, analyst and host. You may know him from such websites as Deadspin, Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather, WashingtonPost.com, and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JoshZerkle.

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