The National Arena League is that place between sleep and awake where you still remember nightmares of the AAL as the higher order to which you’re accustomed comes back into focus. It’s the Pearly Gate at which “pro” football really becomes professional. It’s where communities passionately embrace their teams and hate the opponent. It’s where you can go to a game and yell at a player without his mom getting in your face. Here, fans know most players on most rosters and speculate on signings that can help their team just as they would in the NFL. And tonight, while the AAL celebrates the six-month birthday of the feature on Larry Beavers signing with the Georgia Doom that has adorned its website all season, the Carolina Cobras and Columbus Lions will close the 2018 campaign of arena football.
It’s a great time to be an NAL fan, and tonight you’ll be treated to the accoutrements that have come with your fandom all season: professional announcers, broadcasts beaming in at full bandwidth, and games statistics at your fingertips. These are some perks in our league that we’ve taken for granted, but there’s another that many will downright disagree with: the NAL is blessed with competent and unbiased referees. And as this is our last game, we should celebrate it without the taint of our normal predisposition to believe otherwise.
Let’s be honest, we’ve done this all season. Search for “ref” on NAL social media forums and see for yourselves how long we’ve been at it. Some of my favorite comments include, “these refs are so trash,” “these refs are garbage,” and the time-honored classic, “someone needs to get these refs some glasses.”
To date, what has it gotten us? Perhaps the most controversial call of the season was Sharks defensive back Seth Ellis’s pass interference on Lions wide receiver Triston Purifoy back on July 7. That call created a week-long uproar, coming as it did in the homestretch with both the Sharks and Lions vying for top seed. Sure, it was a missed call, but we allowed it to excuse Jacksonville for the loss while overlooking the fact that their secondary had no answers for Purifoy and quarterback Jason Espinosa. We missed an early indication that the Sharks were ill-prepared to repeat as champions, and that fact had to be pounded into us two weeks ago when Jacksonville’s defense committed a mind-numbing 22 penalties in their semifinal loss to the Cobras.
But we also allowed ourselves to reinforce a false conception that the refs are barely competent, or that they control outcomes. And that concerns Joe Clarkson, the NAL’s Director of Officials.
As it is, Clarkson has recruitment challenges since he needs officials on par with the AFL but can’t pay on that scale. That’s because the skills gap between players in the two leagues diminished substantially this past season, and may be nonexistent in a year or two to come. Based on end-of-season rosters, 60% of NAL players now come from NCAA Division I schools, with two-thirds of them from the FBS. That’s a high concentration of the best of the best to which Clarkson must respond in kind, but he says his efforts are exasperated due to the continuous lack of respect shown to officials by coaches and players, which makes the NAL an ever less-coveted gig. It goes without saying that fans don’t help his cause with our continued assaults on their character and abilities. Clarkson has nevertheless managed so far. claiming that approximately 60% of his crew has Division I experience.
“Many times, our referees will come up to a player and say, ‘Hey, I remember you from college,’” Clarkson says of the familiarity between players and officials. And with that comment, it’s clear he believes his cadre has the requisite experience, but he will also be the first to admit that it’s inherently tougher to maintain parity the further removed each group is from those colegiate days. The learning curve in indoor football is steeper for officials than for players, and the skills ramp-up more gradual.
“There are a lot more nuances, and a lot more judgment calls,” he says, noting that, in addition to the defensive and offensive pass interferences that also mar outdoor football, he has jacks leaving boxes and no-daylight issues to contend with. These are the unique hotspots in the arena game that generate the ire of coaches, players, and fans.
Altogether too often, that ire is escalated into a belief that refs have it in for a particular team, or that hometown cooking is involved, Many fans believe the crews are local to the game venue, which is far from the truth. According to Clarkson, most crews are filled from outside the home city, although travel costs impose some geographical limitations in drawing from too afar. Clarkson himself, a Maryland resident, will be taking the field in Greensboro tonight. And in the case of the infamous pass interference call in Columbus earlier this season, the back judge who flagged Ellis was actually from Jacksonville.
Ignorance can be bliss, but it can also be a Get Out Of Jail card we will eagerly play if either our Cobras or our Lions should lose tonight, and that’s an injustice to both teams.
Contempt for officials is contagious. That is something everyone can agree on. Clarkson points out that it can also be self-perpetuating. By deterring good officials, he’ll be increasingly left with a pool of less-experienced mediocre refs from which to draw. That is something we should all see as commonsensical. If we continue to perpetuate our contempt, we’ll ultimately succeed in denigrating one of the true fortunes of the NAL, which is the quality of its officials. And in the process, we’ll suck all the enjoyment and meaning out of each game, beginning tonight.