The easiest call for a ref to fumble

I've recently had reason to remind myself that it's quite easy - even natural - to flunk the official football referee's exam. That's the test you're supposed to pass to officiate in the Saturday-morning kids' games in the park, or at the junior high games weekdays after school, or at the high school games in the stadium on Friday nights. It's a fairly easy test to flunk, especially if you've only glanced at the rules quickly while eating dinner and talking to your mom half an hour before taking the test.

I suspect that every woman intuitively knows that such a test is easily flunked. After all, the Official Rules Book for football has more than 80 pages of very small print, one rule following another, broken into various sections and articles and sub-articles and exceptions and exclusions and tiny, tiny points of football law. There's another whole book that gives examples of the first book. A third book is "simplified and illustrated," because the first two books couldn't quite explain it all. Without studying, such a test is almost impossible to pass. Again, every woman probably recognizes this.

Most of us men, however, assume we could walk into a referee's test cold and get at least a passing grade - a C-minus, at worst - but secretly we think we'd probably get a B. Discovering that the test is true/false (our favorite kind of test), our confidence soars.

Most of us men assume we could pass such a test because most of us have been arguing the football rules since we were boys, refining our knowledge at the top of our lungs in the heat of battle, first on the field, then from the stands, and finally in front of the tube. We know how the game is to be played - we think. We know a safety from a touchback. We know being forced out of bounds versus ... well, versus accidentally stepping out of bounds. And you can't come back in - well, unless ... I mean you can come back in, but then you can't be the first to touch the ball. (I just read this in the rule book.) Try these:

1. True or false: If a dead-ball foul occurs following the ready-for-play, it is too late for a coach/referee conference regarding misapplication of a rule during the previous down.

2. True or false: Following an interception on his 3-yard line, it is a touchdown if B1's momentum carries him into B's end zone where he fumbles and A1 recovers there.

3. True or false: It is illegal participation if any player intentionally goes out of bounds.

The referee's exam has a hundred such questions, some harder, some softer. (The answers, by the way: 1. false; 2. true; 3. false.) Most men, in fact, would - and do - flunk the exam the first time they take it, unless they have advance warning about the test's precision and deftness and have prepared themselves with books and study sessions. The football referee's exam is not - even with a lifetime's love of the game - a no-brainer. Most women would recognize this from the outset, and study before they were tested.

Here's another little-known but long-suspected fact: You don't actually have to pass the stupid test, thank goodness, before you get to dress in stripes and referee a game or two - at least at the lower levels, at the small Saturday kids and junior high levels. You're supposed to pass the test, of course; you're supposed to know the rules. But sometimes there just aren't enough of us football nuts to go around for all the games being played and, whether you pass the test or not, they need you - us - out there officiating. And it's fun.

One last fact - this one quite well known: Even if you pass the test and know all the rules, as a football official you never see all you're supposed to see, and sometimes you don't even see what you thought you just saw. Things happen quickly when you're standing there on the field and the young guys - on the signal, or maybe an instant before - start to run, dodge, jump, feint, and smash into one another en masse in all directions at all points on the field. Even if you know all the rules and you pass the test, still, things happen really fast when you're in the thick of it, up close. You never see it all.

The good news is that even if you flunk the test - say, for example, you get a 67 - afterward you get to look at the answers and see what you missed. It's then you realize there's a subtlety to the game - even after decades and decades of playing and watching and shouting and going for more chips. There's a subtlety to the game that is not at first apparent. (And this is something that many women may not know.)

The first football game was played on Nov. 6, 1869, when Princeton and Rutgers put 20 men on each side and played mostly soccer rules. Since that frosty day, hundreds of thousands of males (and in the last few years a few young, brave-hearted females) have been running up and down on the green, and next to the green - shouting and arguing and changing the rules to what they should be, could be, might be. In our day, knowing all the rules is not a no-brainer.

The first rule, though, is still unwritten: We're here, male and female, to have fun, be it on the field, on the sidelines, in the stands, or in front of the tube. If we break that rule, all the rest of the rules have no meaning.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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