Before they ever officiate a professional game, NFL officials have the league’s nearly 300-page rulebook drilled into their hippocampus. Which is why we know the two officials captured on video appearing to collect an autograph from Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Mike Evans had to have known better.
Following Sunday’s Panthers-Buccaneers game, two officials identified as side judge Jeff Lamberth and line judge Tripp Sutter tracked down Evans for what appeared to be an autograph. The videos, taken by Carolina Panthers reporter Sheena Quick of FOX Sports Radio 1340, have already sparked an investigation by the league office, according to the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
[Updated Oct. 25, 2022, at 2:23 p.m.] An investigation by the league determined that the referees were not requesting an autograph from the star WR. NFL reporter Tom Pelissero said that, per his sources, Lamberth was getting the Bucs’ wideout’s phone number to pass along to a golf pro so Evans could get lessons.
“I wasn’t signing an autograph, I’ll tell you that,” Evans told reporters.
OK, but even the appearance of fraternization with players creates a cloud of suspicion that refs should avoid. Gathering Evans’ phone number, didn’t lead to a Bucs victory, as they were upset by the Panthers. Evans’ dropped touchdown and Tom Brady’s ineffectiveness did the Bucs in, but it does breach the strict professional boundaries that the NFL has in place.
Interestingly, Lamberth, in his 21st season as an official, and Sutter, in his fourth, knew who to ask, and Evans obliged without thinking twice. However, several onlookers gawked at the exchange while they headed back to the locker room. This also didn’t appear like an impromptu interaction. The officials spot Evans, call his name, get him to write something on a piece of paper, and walk their separate ways after fewer than 15 seconds, which gives the appearance that the officials had discussed something with Evans before entering the tunnel.
There is a history, however, of refs requesting autographs from players. Before a 1995 game between the Packers and Buccaneers, game official Jerry Bergman messed around and found it. Bergman, a 30-year-veteran official, sought Brett Favre out to autograph eight football cards for his grandson. I don’t know if it’s worse that he went searching for Favre or that he was hounding players before the game. Reportedly, Bergman had also asked for autographs from running back Errict Rhett and LB Hardy Nickerson, who declined. Nickerson was ejected by official Walt Coleman in the fourth quarter for his role in a fight. For his part, Bergman was fined and disciplined, but never worked another NFL sideline again.
Bergman is the only modern NFL official punished for autograph-seeking on the job, but even Rhett and other Bucs teammates acknowledged that Bergman wasn’t the first to ask. In the 30 years since an example was made of Bergman, no officials have been caught, in part because they haven’t been irresponsible enough to ask for it in plain view of media and recording devices.