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Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Updated: January 19, 3:38 AM ET
Full-time NFL officials? Yes, please

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

First, it has to be one official per crew, period. At least one official for every NFL crew has to be full-time. Ideally, they would all be full-time, but let's begin with that.

Still, you hate to become too tangled in the specific numbers right away. I rather think Roger Goodell was grabbing a figure out of the air Sunday when he told a group of fans that the NFL will look into making some of its officials, "let's say 10," full-time employees next season.

NFL Officials
Sure, the refs might stand around discussing their retirement plans, but they'd also bring more study and review time to the field if they were full-time employees.

Or perhaps that's simply what I hope, that Goodell wasn't serious about only making 10 of the officials full-timers. Still: Stop right there. Stop while you are gazing at the larger picture. That's the good news. We can get into the grungy details later.

The NFL going full-time with any officials, any at all, is a wonderful and necessary thing. It's an overdue thing. And what complications and concerns exist are dwarfed by the good that can come of having America's largest sport policed on the field by people who do it for a living, whose job it is.

We can officially leave Bill "Much-Maligned" Leavy out of this, by the way. Leavy is the man on the hook for some powerfully stenchified calls in the New York-Green Bay game, and it was the kind of game that makes people wonder about the whole zebra setup in the NFL. But he had nothing to do with the timing of Goodell's comments. The commissioner's utterances came hours earlier, before the Ravens and Texans kicked off their divisional playoff game in Baltimore.

Goodell's brief remarks made so much sense, you almost had to check your head.

"Consistency is exactly what every club wants, and I think every fan wants," the commissioner said. "You want consistency in the way rules are applied."

Well … yeah, actually. Precisely. And perhaps in no season has consistency been more of an issue than this one, when even the officials at times have appeared confused as to what was a legal hit. If the guys in the stripes don't know, how can the players and the coaches?

The NFL, a league so powerful it can drive annual revenues of $9 billion (that's "billion" with a capital Billion), can no doubt fund this modest move toward accountability. In fact, it's among the enduring oddities in any study of the NFL: the part-time status of those who would enforce its labyrinthine rules.

Much of that, of course, has to do with the nature of the game. Pro football refs generally only call one contest per week, and for decades that point has been raised as a counterargument to taking the officials in-house.

Even now, in the wake of Goodell's comments, there have been well-meaning peeps of concern that some of the really good NFL officials might choose their "regular" jobs over a full-time gig with Tha League, as if that possibility constitutes some sort of unassumable risk.

Let me go on record: The NFL ought to risk it.

Goodell with NFL Officials
Roger Goodell should seriously consider making the roles held by Carl Cheffers, center, and Mark Steinkerchner, right, full-time jobs.

This is an all-in league, right? Look at the teams still standing in the conference championships. They are virtual case studies in the all-in approach to football. Why should the officiating be any different? Offer salary, benefits, job expectation, performance incentives; review boundaries and ground rules for employment. The best refs aren't going to be scared off. They'll be all-in, just like the rest of this thundering freight train of a sports industry.

The idea of offering full-time employment for perhaps 25 weeks' worth of games might sound counterintuitive; in fact, it makes all the sense in the world. For that matter, most pro sports leagues have essentially evolved into year-round enterprises, and football is no exception. Players are, for the most part, doing football every week of the year.

In other words, players work out and practice full-time in order to make those 17 weekends of the regular season as brilliant as they can possibly be. The league needs its officials to be just as fully invested.

There is a case to be made that even with the officials fully in the NFL's employ, they won't magically become better on game day. The speed of the sport still makes it tough to get calls right in real time. That's fair, as far as it goes.

But what I haven't heard, from anyone, is a convincing argument that hiring the refs won't at least help. Of course it'll help. Of course it will make a difference if the officials are spending their weeks studying film in the NFL's offices, understanding calls better, understanding why certain calls went wrong, discerning a great hit from an illegal hit -- all of it. That's common sense.

Opening the NFL jobs up for full-time consideration is going to broaden and deepen the applicant pool, not shallow it up. Don't tell me the league can't make the salary and benefits competitive. And if Goodell struggles at first with the idea of taking every official in-house, give it time. Just 10 next year? Call it a start. Then get started.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book "The Voodoo Wave" is in international release. His work "Six Good Innings" was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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