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NFL Referee Ron Torbert Makes the Tough Calls

A Harvard Law alum puts his degree to work on the field

November-December 2022

NFL referee Ron Torbert in uniform on the football during a game

Torbert at work, San Francisco 49ers vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, November 2021

Photograph by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Torbert at work, San Francisco 49ers vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, November 2021

Photograph by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It’s hard for me to watch a football game as a fan,” says Ron Torbert, J.D. ’88, a veteran National Football League (NFL) referee who was crew chief at the 2022 Super Bowl. “TV doesn’t show the game the way I like to watch it. TV follows the ball. As an official, I want to follow everything else—if you are watching the ball, you are not doing your job.”

The folks with the whistles do have lots to take in. When the football gets snapped, 11 athletes from each team explode into action like pool balls at the opening break. “There are 22 of them and only seven of us,” says Torbert, “and we need to see every play happen from a good point of view and at the right moment. That’s why we spend so much time on positioning.” Keeping up with elite professional athletes takes superior fitness. “Zebras” (slang for officials in their black-and-white striped shirts) also need a deep understanding of the game—to anticipate an athlete’s next move to better call it legal or illegal, for example.

“People assume that the fastest, strongest, and biggest people win,” Torbert explains. “But I’ve learned over the years how much of a mental game football is. Players have got to be smart—to be in the right place at the right time, to know where to put their hands or feet. It’s a real chess match. A very sophisticated game.” Football also demands proper execution from every teammate. Perhaps a quarterback and wide receiver connect for a spectacular 72-yard touchdown pass—but if the quarterback got the extra time he needed to throw because one of his linesmen committed offensive holding, that will nullify the touchdown—and the team will incur a 10-yard penalty.

Torbert, who practiced law as a business litigator for three decades, explains that “there are definite parallels” between his two lines of work. “Being a lawyer has helped me to be a better official, and vice versa,” he says. “In both fields, you take in information, apply rules and the philosophy behind them, and reach a decision. But decisions on the football field get made a lot faster than ones in the law! Of course, the stakes of football don’t compare to those of judges and attorneys. But the process is similar.”

To call games well, it’s crucial to work with a good team. “There are three teams on the field: the two football teams and the officials,” Torbert says. Fans routinely use the words official, referee, and umpire as synonyms, but the NFL defines seven distinct positions on the crew: referee, umpire, down judge, line judge, field judge, side judge, and back judge. Torbert sees more judges on the gridiron than he ever did in a courtroom. Each official covers an assigned part of the field and has specific responsibilities. Two “replay officials” work with monitors in a booth above the field.

Having joined the NFL in 2010 after two decades calling high school and college games, Torbert began with four years as a side judge, positioned near the defensive backfield 25 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. There, he’d check pass receivers and defensive backs for infractions, watch his sideline to see if runners remain in bounds, count the defensive players on the field, and serve as primary timekeeper in case the game clock were to malfunction, among other things. (The league doesn’t allow its “zebras” to discuss famous plays or controversial calls with the media.)

In 2014, the league promoted Torbert to referee, the position he has held since and will hold for the rest of his NFL career. As such, he is the crew chief—the only official in a white cap (the others wear black)—and responsible for overseeing all aspects of officiating and maintaining the pace of the game. He stands behind the offensive backfield 15 yards deep toward the right side, and rules on first downs, observes all action around the quarterback, and is the final authority on disputed calls. The referee visually (with standard signals) and verbally announces all official rulings to the live and television audience. It is he who wears the wireless microphone, as Torbert did to keep this year’s Super Bowl television audience of 112 million informed.

The NFL musters its teams of officials each year, who work together for the entire season. Each official works 16 regular season games, with two weeks off. This means that crews travel to a different American city nearly every week from August until January, and many work postseason games thereafter. “I’m blessed that my family has supported me through this journey,” Torbert says. “Every spring, I ask Melanie [his wife of 32 years], ‘Are you OK with me doing this?’ She’s always said, ‘Yep, you’re fine.’ She knows I love officiating, but she also knows I’d stop if she wanted.”

Naturally, all officials must understand the rulebook (the 2020 edition ran 241 pages), backward and forward. The league updates its rules every spring with input from its officials, especially on enforceability. Torbert, who teaches at off-season camps and workshops for high school and college “zebras,” emphasizes the importance of “mechanics.” Mechanics include positioning: “Where are they standing, what are they looking at, and what are they looking for?” he explains. “If you’re not in the right position, you won’t be able to apply the rules.”

Two of the toughest calls are penalties for defensive holding and pass interference (which can be offensive or defensive). Defenders cannot tackle or hold any offensive player other than a runner, nor may they hinder a pass receiver’s ability to catch a ball. By the same token, receivers may not, for example, push off a defensive back who’s making a legitimate play on a ball in the air. “Pass receivers and defensive backs make those calls tough by being so athletically gifted,” Torbert explains. Wide receivers, for example, have been clocked running 40 yards in as few as 4.22 seconds—almost 10 yards per second. Even the fittest officials need a good head start to make a call on them.

The NFL rulebook specifies objective criteria for whether or not a receiver made a valid catch. Head coaches may challenge a catch ruling, triggering an official review. But with pass interference, for example, there’s often a good deal of physical contact between a wide receiver and a cornerback, and what determines a foul is whether an obstructive act restricts someone materially. “There’s a lot more judgment involved in a pass interference call,” Torbert says. “Those rulings are not subject to challenge and review—since that would merely substitute one person’s judgment for another’s.”

“Officiating is improving year to year,” he opines, noting that fitness standards, enforced by an annual exam, continue to rise. “We are required to be athletes,” he explains; an average NFL game includes 150-160 plays and, unlike the players, the officials are on field for all of them. Technology also continues to play a larger role. “Technology is a mixed bag,” Torbert says, “but overall, it’s had very positive effects.” Slow-motion review of scoring plays, turnovers, or challenged calls now allows more camera angles to correct errors on problematic calls like whether the ball penetrated the goal-line plane before the runner’s knee touched the ground to qualify for a touchdown. “As technology gets better, there’s also more of an expectation that everything will be perfect,” he adds. “But football is a game played by humans, coached by humans, and officiated by humans.”

New wrinkles in data can directly affect his work. “The league can compare different officiating teams on the average number of fouls they call per game,” Torbert says. “Data can tell you what happened, but not why it happened. For example, some have claimed that in big games like the playoffs, officials give players more latitude on committing fouls. They’ll say, ‘They are letting them play.’ Well, yes, there may be fewer penalties in a playoff game. But that’s because these are the best teams, and good teams don’t foul as much.”

The NFL’s 17 officiating crews, each with seven members, plus a couple of “swing” officials, make up a league staff of 121, and “I’d be happy to work with any or all of them,” Torbert says. Less than one-third of the officials are black in a league with a clear majority of black athletes. Since its origins in 1920, the NFL has had only eight black crew chiefs, including Torbert, and black referees have worked only three of the 56 Super Bowls, again including Torbert. “There are a lot of people working to change that,” he says.

Throughout his school, college, and pro career, overt issues of racism have not hindered his advancement, he says, adding, “I consider myself fortunate. I benefit from officials who came before me who did face racial barriers, and I don’t take that history lightly.” (Regarding another element of diversity, Sarah Thomas, one of the league’s three female officials, spent three years on Torbert’s crew; she is “a wonderful official, and a great person and mom,” he says. Recently, Maia Chaka became the NFL’s first black woman official, and Lo van Pham its first Asian American.)

 

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Torbert played recreational football and basketball as a child, and in high school his varsity sport was tennis. At Michigan State University, he played the same sports on a recreational and intramural basis, proving that it’s not necessary to have played football at a competitive level to officiate it well. A political science major, Torbert excelled academically and on the LSATs, and was accepted wherever he applied to law school, including one tempting offer of a full scholarship. Then an older cousin asked, “What are you doing? Do whatever you have to, to go to Harvard: that will open doors for the rest of your life.”

Torbert’s Law School class included many Ivy League alumni, but few, if any, other Michigan Staters, which naturally made him wonder how he’d measure up. But, he recalls, “My classmates were real people, regular people who were friendly and helpful. I thoroughly enjoyed my entire time at Harvard.” Torbert spent his legal career, from 1988 until retirement in 2019, with a law firm and then as in-house counsel for a construction company in Michigan. “I was drawn to the challenge of litigation—debate, argument, ‘finding the truth,’ and convincing others of your position,” he explains. “I absolutely loved being a lawyer. The most fun was visiting construction projects, watching something take form and knowing you had a hand in it.”

Starting out, officiating was “something to do on Friday evenings where I could get some exercise and be connected to a game I loved.”

Law also indirectly launched Torbert’s officiating career. In 1989, a law firm associate who was stepping down from officiating high school football games invited Torbert to replace him. “It was fun for me almost immediately,” he recalls. “Something to do on Friday evenings where I could get exercise and be connected to a game I loved.”

Today, via his son’s influence, Torbert has also developed a taste for the game most of the world calls “football,” i.e., soccer. He follows the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. A father of two, Torbert now lives in Maryland, where his fitness regime includes chasing his four-year-old grandson around the house.

Though he has rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most celebrated athletes and works in one of the most lucrative parts of the entertainment industry, Torbert has not acquired a taste for glory. Sports officials in general would rather avoid the kinds of controversial calls that make ESPN’s Sports Center: at its best, officiating, like restaurant service, is nearly invisible. “The best game we work is the game when nobody notices we are there,” he says. “If you want to be famous, this is not the job for you.”  

 

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