Ed Hochuli's Lesson for NFL Refs: Become Celebrities

If more officials were household names, they'd have more bargaining power with the league.

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It's difficult to say whether the NFL or the refs stand to benefit more from the outcome of the officiating strike, The Atlantic's Kevin Fixler argued earlier this week. While I agree with Fixler's primary argument, I would add that one person in particular can be declared the winner of this strike, and that person is Ed Hochuli.

Hochuli is an NFL official and the one referee in all of pro sports that fans can consistently identify by name. Known for his chiseled physique, (not a common feature among officials) and the eloquent manner in which he explains even the most mundane penalties, Hochuli achieved a quasi level of celebrity long before this lockout. This made him something of an anomaly in the sports world, since referees tend to fade into the background rather than command the limelight.

Hochuli's celebrity began to take shape in the second-half of the last decade and has only continued to grow. His toned arms and chest make him look like one of the players he officiates--Hochuli did in fact play college football--and his detailed explanations gave him an air of credibility other officials lack. In a somewhat ironic turn, Hochuli's fame reached a whole new level in 2008 when he made a controversial call between the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos that affected the outcome of the game. He admitted to making a mistake on the play, was publicly criticized by a prominent NFL owner Jerry Jones, and was downgraded by the league. It was a bit surreal watching the one NFL ref who was a household name get slammed for blowing such a basic call, and fans wondered if this was the end of the ref commonly referred to as Hochules.

But in the same way that a good sports narrative requires the star athlete to overcome a few hurdles before crossing the finish line, Hochuli persevered and rebounded from the San Diego incident. The way he handled adversity seemed to verify his abilities and staying power. He regained his stature a respected official, and over the past few years he's been almost as much as a mainstay on Sunday afternoons in the fall as Bill Belichick or Tom Brady. While it's not uncommon for officials to achieve notoriety for scandals (think Tim Donaghy) or blown calls, Hochuli is one official who commands attention because he projects a distinct air of authority.

But no one could have predicted how much Hochuli's star would grow as a result of labor strife between the officials and the league. As the public outcry over the incompetence of the replacement officials grew, Hochuli began to pop up in the news as if he was symbolized competent officiating in all of professional sports. Peter King went on PTI and mentioned that Hochuli was holding mini-ref boot camps so that the refs would be ready to go whenever an agreement was reached. When the lockout officially ended on Thursday, Hochuli made as many headlines as Roger Goodell. Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin sat down with him to go over how an NFL ref handles a typical play; Fox Sports ran a story about Hochuli's aforementioned ref "boot camp." And the news ticker on Yahoo.com ran a story titled (italics mine) "Famous referee's funny celebration" with the subhead "Ed Hochuli's reaction to the end of the NFL's ref lockout is one that his many fans will appreciate."

If there has ever been a referee in any professional sports league that is more famous than Hochuli is right now, I am unaware of it. The Yahoo story reported that Hochuli reacted to news of an agreement between the refs and the league by doing some push-ups. The world's best PR firms could not have scripted a better response. At this point I don't think anyone would bat an eyelash if Hochuli was invited to participate in the next season of Dancing with the Stars.

During the lockout former NFL quarterback Steve Young argued that one of the obstacles prolonging the conflict was that league executives "don't feel like officiating is an on-field personality, they feel like it's a commodity." Commodities can be bought and sold and replaced without second thought, and Goodell and the owners seemed to think that they could replace the regular refs without any negative repercussions. As the last few weeks demonstrated, they clearly overestimated the competence of the replacement refs, and it was fan uproar over blown calls more than anything else that put pressure on the league to get a deal done.

But one way that NFLRA could force the NFL to stop looking at its members as commodities is by encouraging more of its members to court publicity. When a figure in professional sports, whether it's an athlete or an official, becomes a household name, that person stops being a commodity and turns into a distinct personality. Personalities cannot be replaced as easily. Fans miss personalities; they don't miss faceless commodities. Ed Hochuli has become a personality, and fans will feel a sense of comforting familiarity when he's back on the field officiating games. If the same was true of more refs, the NFLRA would gain some leverage in the public relations component of any future labor agreements, which, as this lockout showed, can play a very crucial role in forcing compromise.