Mike Carey ’71 on what it takes to earn your stripes as a head ref in the NFL
By Jim Shepard
Jim Shepard: What are the biggest challenges, in terms of officiating at the pro level versus college?
Mike Carey: I think it’s that the game is completely different: It takes a quantum leap in speed and impact—the collisions are much bigger and faster, and you have to adapt to that. That’s probably the biggest change.
Q: That would mean that making the right call is a matter of slowing down a spectacularly fast game. How do you do that?
A: Practice. You watch a lot of film. Some people are naturally able to do it and some never make the transition. There are some people considered some of the top officials in college football who can’t cut it on the NFL level.
Q: Is that film preparation mostly information-gathering, or are you trying to train your own perceptions: getting ready to see stuff at a faster clip?
A: I think it’s how you’re wired, to be able to do that. That puts you at a base level. But without a lot of practice and film work, and concentration, it’s easily lost: If you’re not ready at any game, a game can outspeed you, so you really need to work on it all the time. And then there’s the level of scrutiny in the NFL.
Q: I assume that all good officials obsess over what they worry were mistakes. And that you’re tougher on your own mistakes than any fan. But what sort of methods do you have to put the previous week behind you?
A: It’s a matter of going over mistakes that you’ve made and thinking, faced with those circumstances again, what would you do? And that repetition in your head, it’s like muscle memory: It puts you in a position to be able to do it right the next time. But you never get over the mistakes: They may be small and they get overweighed by the other things, but you don’t forget them.
You try to visualize what happened and then circumstances that could be similar. Because they’re never exactly the same. And then you just run those over in your head and imagine yourself doing something different.
Q: Is a loss of confidence one of the worst things that can happen to an official?
A: Yes. Like in anything in life, your will and confidence to execute that will are really what make the difference. Just as in athletics, in officiating, when you get in a groove, there’s nothing you’re going to miss. But sometimes when that happens frequently, you can just expect that it’s going to be there. When you’re thinking you’re impervious to anything, that’s when you’re going to get caught. You always have to be ready, anticipating, those things that can happen. Most everybody who officiates has played. And it’s that feel for the game that allows you to excel. There are some things that, I don’t care how much you read or study, you don’t know what it feels like to have them happen.
Q: And that allows you to understand how much that particular action would affect a play.
A: Correct. If you played defense, or offense, you know where people are going to be, or go, and that gives you a leg up on what can happen when they get there.
Q: What sort of complaining is acceptable to you, and what sort will get someone the hook?
A: I haven’t thrown anybody out for what they’ve said. It’s always that they’ve stepped over a physical line: hitting another player, spitting on a player, grabbing or pushing an official—that sort of thing.
Q: Is that idiosyncratic from official to official, or pretty standard?
A: I don’t know. I’m very tolerant, because it’s a pretty volatile game, so emotions are going to run over. But there’s no excuse for fighting. If you want to fight, you’re going to have to go somewhere else to do it.
In the thick of it: Carey refs Arizona at Dallas. The Cards wound up with eight penalties that game.
Photo: Courtesy National Football League
Q: If some teams and individuals are more prone to infractions than others, how do you negotiate your own expectations in those cases? Do you try to strike a balance between keeping an eye out for someone’s tendencies, and trying to give them a fair shake?
A: I try not to pay attention to that. Each game has a life of its own. What somebody will do when he’s faced with one person will be completely different when he’s faced with somebody else. And most of the time people foul because they’re overmatched. So those matchups are more important than individuals’ tendencies. You might start to see those tendencies as the game unfolds. And you’ll try and talk guys out of putting themselves in that position. But I’m not much for saying, “This guy always holds.”
Q: Given the demands of a life like this, officials must love the game. Does that ever convert to being a fan of a particular team?
A: It doesn’t with me, but I know there are officials who do have favorite teams, whether it’s the city they live in or whatever.
Q: Does the NFL address that directly?
A: Yeah, by evaluating every play of every game. So if you’re not objectively able to hold those feelings aside, you won’t be in the league long.
Q: Would you like to address, here and now and once and for all, the ordinary fan’s conviction that bad calls are often redressed with makeup calls?
A: There are two things that it seems like people are absolutely sure of: one, that if we think we made a bad call, we make a makeup call, and two, that we’re always for the other team. Both are completely untrue. The worst thing you can do is layer a mistake with another mistake.
Q: No one other than the players has seen the game more intimately than officials. Has it evolved in the last 10 years?
A: It’s always changing; it’s dynamic, that’s what makes it so entertaining. The players’ size, speed, agility, and skills are improving all the time, and that’s phenomenal, I think.
Q: What’s the best thing about officiating?
A: The game: a tight game, right down to the wire. Being right in the middle of the action, with the crowd so loud it’s just white noise: just that whole atmosphere of our crew being really tight, communication-wise, and covering everything, and a really big, hard-hitting, fast, close game. That’s the best.
Jim Shepard is the author of Like You’d Understand Anyway and Project X. He teaches writing, literature, and film at Williams College.