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Activist Referees

In the 1st quarter of last night’s Thursday Night Football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens threw a pass to the back of the end zone to wide receiver River Cracraft. Cracraft caught the ball and touched two feet in bounds for an apparent touchdown, and the referees on the field signaled touchdown. The play went to review and was studied closely by the replay referees in the booth because when Cracraft hit the ground, the ball was dislodged. The called was ultimately overturned and the play deemed an incomplete pass.

During training camp of 2018, the NFL sent officials to every team’s camp around the league to go through the rule changes for the upcoming season. The biggest rule change of that year was clarifying the definition of what constitutes a catch. They decided to eliminate the highly subjective rule that the receiver must maintain possession of the ball “through the process of the catch”. That rule had led to some disastrous mis-calls, most notably the Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant game deciding no-catches.

The NFL changed the rule from the receiver must maintain possession through the “process of the catch” to after securing the catch, the receiver must touch three body parts on the ground. A body part consists of a foot, a shin, a knee, a hip, an elbow, a hand, a shoulder. A body part is a body part. The players and coaches collectively were ecstatic. The NFL had removed a highly subjective process of making a certain call, and made that call extremely objective. With multiple camera angles, high definition cameras and extremely slow-motion play back, it would be clear and easy to make an objective determination on whether a ball was caught based on the number of body parts hitting the ground.

Looking at the play from last night in high def, slow motion replay, after Cracraft secured the ball, his right foot hit the ground, his left foot hit the ground, his left knee hit the ground, and his right hand hit the ground prior to his left elbow hitting the ground which dislodged the ball. By that count, four body parts hit the ground before the ball came out. According to the new rule set in place in 2018, that was a clearly defined catch. Going by the previous rule, that was not a catch. But this is the year 2020, not 2017. So why did the call get overturned? Activist referees. Instead of applying the letter of the law to determine if that individual play was a catch, they decided to impose their own subjective judgement on the merits of the play.

Outside of the NFL rule book, one could make a very compelling argument that Cracraft did not in fact catch the ball. It was a bang-bang play. He only secured the ball for a second at most before it came out. But that was not the criteria that was set-up by the NFL Competition Committee as explained to the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California during the summer of 2018.

The four body parts all hit the ground fractions of seconds before each other, and before the elbow hit dislodging the ball. But all four hit before the ball came out, and before is before whether its ten minutes or a milli-second before. Four body parts hit before the ball came out.

It was clear, obvious and objective as defined by the letter of the law of the NFL. The referees in the booth decided to apply their own subjective standard on the play which if carried forward will create inconsistent calls throughout the league and replicate the crucial mis-calls in important games like the Dez Bryant catch/no-catch.

This is the problem with activist referees in the replay booth, and activist judges on the bench. When judges are allowed to apply their own individual subjective standards when ruling on issues, and ignore the letter of the law, it becomes ripe for injustice and will only serve to create an inconsistent and inequitable application of the legal system. Consistency is the most important thing for NFL referees, plate umpires and judges. Clearly defined objective standards and having judges following the letter of the law will always produce far more consistency in rulings, far more fairness and justice than when judges subjectively applying their own personal judgement which is always clouded by emotion, their intellectual limitations and personal bias.


Judd Garrett is a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He is a frequent contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.

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