What is the definition of a Referee in American Football?

A referee in American Football is an essential figure in maintaining the integrity and structure of the game. As the leader of the officiating crew, referees are responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations during the match. They ensure the game is played fairly and safely, making critical decisions that directly impact the outcome of the match.

In addition to being the final authority on all rulings, a referee communicates with other officials, players, and coaches to relay important information. Their role encompasses everything from announcing penalties to discussing fouls with team captains. Referees also work in conjunction with other officials such as umpires, line judges, and back judges, each holding specific responsibilities and positions on the field.

Key Takeaways

  • A referee enforces rules and regulations, ensuring a fair and safe game
  • They hold the final authority on rulings and communicate with other officials, players, and coaches
  • American football officiating consists of different positions with unique responsibilities

Role of a Referee

Game Management

The referee in American football is responsible for overseeing and managing the game. This includes monitoring the game clock, ensuring that teams are ready for kickoffs and other plays, and coordinating with other officials to maintain a smooth and fairly paced game. The referee also keeps track of the down and distance, timeouts, and any other relevant game statistics.

Enforcing Rules

Referees play a critical role in enforcing the rules of American football. They have the authority to call penalties for rule violations and can disqualify players for unsportsmanlike conduct or flagrant fouls. Some common penalties referees enforce include false starts, holding, pass interference, and unnecessary roughness. The referee also steps in to resolve disputes between officials and has the final say on rulings.

Judgment Calls

In addition to enforcing rules, referees must make judgment calls on plays that can influence the outcome of a game. These judgment calls include determining if a pass is complete or incomplete, if a player is out of bounds or in the end zone, and if a kick is successful or unsuccessful. Referees must rely on their knowledge of the rules, experience, and discretion to make these decisions quickly and accurately.

Referee Positioning

Field Placement

The referee is the head official in American football and has the final say with all rulings on the field. They typically position themselves behind the offensive team, favoring the right side if the quarterback is a right-handed passer. This allows the referee to have a clear view of the quarterback’s actions, as well as the offensive and defensive lines.

The referee stands around ten feet into the defensive backfield, which allows them to observe the entire field and its players. Their main responsibility is to ensure the game is played fairly and according to the rules, while keeping an eye on the play clock and making any necessary calls.


In American football, the referee uses a whistle to signal the start and end of a play. The whistle is blown to indicate dead balls, fouls, timeouts, and other game stoppages. They also signal when a touchdown, field goal, or safety is scored.

It’s crucial for the referee to have a clear understanding of the game’s rules and situations to know when to blow the whistle at the right time. Consistency in whistle blowing is essential to maintain the game’s flow and ensure that all players follow the rules.


Referees use hand signals to communicate their decisions during the game to the players, coaches, and spectators. Some common signals include:

  • Touchdown: Both arms raised above the head with palms facing outward
  • Holding: Hands clasped in front of the chest with fingers interlocked
  • Offside: Arm extended straight out to the side with an open palm
  • Pass interference: One arm extended straight up while the other arm is extended out with a bent elbow and closed fist

These signals are standardized and allow for clear communication between the referee, other officials, and individuals involved in the game. Understanding and effectively using these signals is crucial for the referee to maintain control and ensure a smoothly run game.

Types of Officials

Head Referee

The head referee, also simply known as the referee, is the chief official in an American football game. This official holds the ultimate authority on the field and has the final say on all rulings. The referee’s primary responsibilities include enforcing the rules of the game and ensuring that the game is conducted in a fair and orderly manner. They have the power to penalize players for rule violations, and in cases of disagreement among officials, the head referee steps in to make the final decision.

Assistant Referees

In addition to the head referee, there are six assistant referees, each with specific titles and assigned duties. These officials work together with the head referee to enforce the rules and conduct the game effectively. The assistant referees in an American football game are:

  1. Umpire: The umpire is responsible for monitoring the line of scrimmage and watching for any illegal blocks, holding, or other fouls committed by the offensive and defensive linemen.
  2. Down Judge: The down judge, formerly known as the head linesman, is primarily in charge of marking the progress of the offensive team and determining whether they have gained enough yardage for a first down.
  3. Line Judge: The line judge is positioned on the opposite side of the field from the down judge, essentially mirroring their responsibilities. They also help in determining the placement of the ball and ensuring that the chain crew accurately measures the required distance for a first down.
  4. Field Judge: The field judge, also known as the back umpire, is responsible for observing the action in the deep part of the field, primarily focusing on pass interference calls and ensuring that defensive players do not make illegal contact with eligible receivers.
  5. Side Judge: The side judge assists in officiating the sidelines, watching for offsides, encroachment, and monitoring the play clock.
  6. Back Judge: The back judge is positioned in the center of the field and is mainly responsible for monitoring the action involving deep passes, punts, and kickoff returns.

These officials, along with the head referee, work as a cohesive unit to maintain the integrity of the game and ensure that it is played according to the rules of American football. Their collective expertise and experience are crucial in delivering a fair and enjoyable experience for both players and fans.

Referee Training


Becoming a football referee starts with obtaining certification through state-approved boards, which are responsible for educating officials to work at high school and youth games. Local associations offer classes and clinics to certify and prepare football referees for all pre-college levels, ensuring they have the necessary skills and confidence to officiate games at various levels of competition.

Continuing Education

Continuing education is crucial for referees in American football, as it helps them stay updated with rule changes, maintain consistency in enforcing rules, and improve their overall officiating skills. The NFL Football Operations department, for instance, has established an Officiating Academy that focuses on encouraging people to participate in officiating and identifying talented officials. The Academy hones their skills, preparing them for higher levels of competition within the sport.

Key Points:

  • Certification can be obtained through state-approved boards and local associations.
  • Referees must undergo continuing education to stay updated on rule changes and improve their skills.
  • The NFL Football Operations department works towards identifying and nurturing talented officials through initiatives like the Officiating Academy.