Sunday's Broncos-Chargers game was a classic shootout between rivals, but unfortunately all most fans will remember is referee Ed Hochuli incorrectly calling a Jay Cutler fumble an incomplete pass, thereby preventing the Chargers from sealing a victory. If you've watched any sports news, you know what happened next: Cutler fired a touchdown pass and completed a two-point conversion to hand the Chargers a loss in a game they should by all rights have won.
Although Hochuli didn't hesitate to admit he blew the call, what was he thinking? Were his enormous biceps blocking his eyes? Aren't these refs trained professionals? Are they handsomely rewarded? What do we really know about the zebras, anyway? We did some digging. Here's what we found:
They seriously get paid.
An NFL ref can make anywhere from $25,000 to $70,000 a season, although since most of the games are on Sundays, they can also have other jobs during the week. (We'll get to those in a minute.) That cash comes with responsibilities, though. In addition to relaying the calls to the teams and fans, a ref is also the crew chief, or leader, of the seven-man officiating team that also includes an umpire, a field judge, a back judge, a line judge, a side judge, and a head linesman.
Officials in other sports pull down more loot, but they have much more grueling schedules...
"¢ Baseball. According to MLB.com, Major League Baseball umpires get around $120,000 when they start out in the big leagues, and senior umps can earn upwards of $350,000. Between spring training, a 162-game schedule, and the postseason, being an MLB ump is a job that takes up most of the year. They are, however, well cared-for while on the road. Each ump gets a $340 per diem to cover hotel and food, and when they fly, it's always first class. They also get four weeks of paid vacation during the regular season. These guys hang onto their jobs, too; on average, there's only one opening for a new big-league ump each season.
"¢ Basketball. NBA refs are similarly well compensated. They earn anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 for an 82-game season. There are some nice fringe benefits, too; when referee Tim Donaghy admitted to helping gamblers fix games, the NBA asked that he repay other benefits he'd pulled in over the course of his 13-year career, including $750 worth of sneakers and $4500 worth of free tickets.
"¢ Hockey. If you can skate and survive the occasional lockout, NHL ref is hardly a bad job. Refs make between $110,000 and $255,000 while linesmen earn from $72,000 to $162,000. (Plus, free trips to Columbus and Raleigh!)
"¢ Women's Basketball. Not all refs are rewarded this handsomely. As you might guess, refs in less popular sports command smaller salaries. According to a 2007 article on sports site scout.com, WNBA refs earn between $600 and $800 a game during the league's 32-game season. That's a floor of just over $19,000 a year for a pretty rigorous job. As the same article notes, women's hoops refs are better off officiating a major-conference college game at $1200 a pop than working a WNBA tilt.
NFL refs have day jobs.
Since NFL refs only work one day each week, they can have "real" jobs to supplement what they earn on any given Sunday. Some of them actually have pretty interesting jobs.
"¢ Mike Carey, my personal favorite ref, is an entrepreneur and inventor who holds eight patents for snow sports apparel. He founded and co-owns Seirus Innovation, a ski apparel company.
"¢ Walt Coleman (pictured) is infamous in Oakland for being the ref in the "Tuck Rule Game," but he's also a fifth-generation dairy farmer who once held the position of president of the Arkansas Dairy Products Association.
"¢ Walter Anderson became an official in the league in 1996 and got the promotion to referee in 2003. Prior to becoming a referee, he was better known as Dr. Walt Anderson, a dentist.
"¢ Tony Corrente is probably used to dealing with unruly crowds of guys from his day job as a high-school social studies teacher.
"¢ If Jeff Triplette seems hard to scare on the field, it's probably because he's seen worse. He was an Army Reserve colonel during the Persian Gulf War, where he was awarded a bronze star.
"¢ Bill Leavy is similarly tough; he spent 27 years as a police officer and firefighter in San Jose.
"¢ Ron Winter's not just a ref, he's also an associate professor in Western Michigan University's phys. ed. department.
"¢ Gene Steratore must love how he looks in stripes. In addition to being an NFL ref, he officiates NCAA hoops games and has drawn March Madness assignments in previous seasons.
"¢ And when Ed Hochuli isn't working out or officiating a game, you might find him in a courtroom. He's a trial lawyer in the Arizona firm Jones, Skelton, and Hochuli, which employs over 80 attorneys.
It's a long climb to the top.
How does one become a ref? Most of these guys have humble beginnings as officials. Carey started officiating Pop Warner games in 1972 and gradually worked his way up through the college ranks. Eventually, he became an NFL side judge in 1990 and received a promotion to NFL referee, the pinnacle of football officiating, in 1995. Hochuli started as a Pop Warner ref in the early 1970s; he was a law school student who needed a little extra pocket cash. He then slowly made his way up through high school, junior college, and small conference college ball before getting a Pac-10 gig. He eventually made it to the NFL in 1990. It's a slow build, but if you stick it out long enough and have some natural talent, you can be the one patting his head to signal an ineligible receiver downfield.
Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.