Jerome Boger will referee the Super Bowl. Jerome Boger probably doesn't deserve to referee the Super Bowl. Football Zebras, a site devoted solely to NFL officiating, reported on Jan. 20 that Boger's unspectacular in-season grades for his refereeing had been mysteriously changed after the fact to make him more qualified, and that he didn't have enough playoff experience under the league's own nebulous guidelines—guidelines that were apparently changed to make him eligible. Now Yahoo and the New York Times have picked up on the story, dragging out current and former officials who say there was a concerted effort on the part of the NFL to rig the system so that Boger would get the Super Bowl assignment. The league's response? Nuh-uh.
Why would the league want Boger to receive its biggest honor and most visible and choice assignment? There are two theories. One—which the Times and Yahoo articles dance around until the last possible moment—is diversity. Boger ("who is black," the Times notes in the 18th paragraph of a 22-paragraph story) was hired by the NFL under a recruiting program specifically designed to find minority candidates, and will be just the second African-American referee to work a Super Bowl, after Mike Carey in 2008.
Jim Daopoulos, now an NBC analyst after a long career as both an NFL referee and a supervisor of officials, tells the Times:
"To be honest, this has happened before," he said. "Grades were adjusted. I know the league is very interested in having diversity in the rank and file, and they've done a great job of doing that. And for that reason, they've tried to work this thing out so that Jerome could have the Super Bowl."
An unnamed official told Yahoo the same story. The league wants diversity on its biggest stage, the official said, and inflating Boger's grades "is a way to take care of that."
The second theory behind Boger being selected over more deserving referees is pure vindictiveness—the NFL was not happy with some of its most respected officials taking public victory laps after the end of the referee lockout. Gene Steratore tipped his cap to the crowd and soaked in the cheers upon his return, while Ed Hochuli appeared on the cover of SI.
"I don't think the league was happy with those things," Daopoulos said. "I told Ed as soon as I saw the Sports Illustrated thing, ‘Well, you're not going to be working the Super Bowl this year.' And you know what? Neither Hochuli or Steratore worked a game in the playoffs."
Regardless of motivation, the league required multifaceted machinations to get Boger this assignment. They had to clean up his grades, and they had to relax their own rules of eligibility.
After each game, officiating supervisors review the video and assign "downgrades" for blown calls or blatantly missed calls. Boger received eight downgrades over the season, not an unusually high number, but more than enough to disqualify an official from working the playoffs. But refs are allowed to appeal their grades, and Boger appealed all of his—Football Zebras, citing one current and one former official, reports that all eight were overturned and stricken from Boger's record. Yahoo's sources confirm.
Former referee Gerry Austin says going eight-for-eight is unheard of. "If you could get two downgrades changed in the course of the year, you've done real well," he told the Times.
The league doesn't publicize its experience requirements for Super Bowls, but they're pretty well-known: a candidate must have officiated a conference championship game at some point in the past. Boger never worked a conference championship—he has refereed three playoff games, all in the divisional round. But when Football Zebras, who in December broke the news that Boger would receive the Super Bowl assignment, contacted the league to point out his ineligibility, they were told that the rule didn't apply.
Michael Signora, vice president of football communications, wrote:
"The criteria for referees to be eligible for the Super Bowl is three years experience as a referee (and five years total) and playoff experience as a referee. That criteria has not changed since at least 2007."
Football Zebras disputes that this was ever the case, and finds a former official who insists conference championship experience has always been a requirement.
The goalposts moved again. Last week the NFL released its officiating requirements for the first time ever, and there was a clause no one had ever seen. Instead of the system everyone thought was in place, where the highest-graded official at each position received the Super Bowl assignment, now a candidate only had to place in the Top Five at his position, a long as the people ahead of him had already worked Super Bowls.
The two referees for last week's conference championships, Terry McAulay and Bill Leavy, have both worked Super Bowls before. So it's possible for Jerome Boger to have scored lower than either of them, and hurdled them for Super Bowl XLVII because the league wants fresh faces in the big game.
The NFL's manipulation of its own rules here is something of an open secret among current and former officials, yet none has complained publicly. They're all too terrified, a former official tells Football Zebras.
"It's not like any of the guys can do anything about it. If they sue or file a grievance, they will be shut out of any playoff assignments, or they could lose their job."
Boger, by all accounts, is far from the worst referee in the NFL. But he's equally as far from being the best. The postseason, and especially the Super Bowl, is supposed to be a reward for the league's top officials, selected through totally impartial evaluation. Instead, an NFL season that began with inferior officiating is going to end the same way.
NFL fixed grades for desired Super Bowl ref [Football Zebras]
Officials question NFL's process for selecting Super Bowl referee [Yahoo]
Probable Choice of Game Referee Draws Skepticism [NY Times]