After 35 years as a referee, 23 in college basketball and 15 in the NFL, Gene Steratore retired last week and has now joined CBS as their rules analyst for both the NFL and college hoops.
Steratore, 55, who was the lead referee in February’s Super Bowl LII, spoke to Awful Announcing about his new career, the difference in officiating football and basketball, the catch rule and more. Though CBS and Steratore didn’t want to go near the National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick or issues of that nature, his thoughts on instant replay and the unique subjectivity he had to deal with every week in the NFL will give readers unique insight into the mind of a top-level official.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Why’d you decide to retire now?
I’ve had a great career in both sports. If you really look at the whole encapsulation, I’ve been actually refereeing for three-and-a-half decades. So it’s been a very worthy endeavor and I do feel that there were some years left in the tank but everything in life ends at some point, I think, and inevitably I was going to have to make a decision to retire at some point from active officiating. And when you talk to the people at the level I’ve been blessed to communicate here and a company like CBS offers an opportunity to do something that still will allow me to stay in officiating well after the years that I would have been as an [in-game] official, it’s a new chapter and it’s an exciting new opportunity.
Is it just a coincidence that you, Terry McAulay and Jeff Triplette are all retiring at the same time?
Why CBS over other networks that just hired rules analysts? Was it because you could do both sports?
I think the ability to be able to do that. I didn’t really have that many strong offers from other networks. It was very informal, and this moved rather fast, too, to be honest with you. But the magnitude of CBS and what they mean to all of us in entertainment and television. And just to get this opportunity to be able to stay involved with the NFL. And then the fact that there’s March Madness there too, it played very well to what I’ve been doing as an active official.
When something fits and you feel like it fits, I think you just look at it that way as opposed to “why not others,” you kind of look forward and think what would be the best opportunity with the best people. And that’s not a knock against any other network. This just felt right.
Looking back, what do you think the biggest difference is in refereeing the NFL and college basketball? I’m sure there are many.
Yeah. I think one of the bigger differences is that in college basketball, the really really great ones or even any young man that’s in college athletics, in four years maximum— and in this day and age it’s more like one or two and they’re gone— there’s a constant turnover of players in college sports. College still has the family feel a little bit. You still have the school bands and all of the excitement that college sports brings, which is great.
You don’t interface as much with the players on a long-term basis because they’re gone so quickly, but you do get the opportunity, usually, to have relations with the coaches because they stay. Even though they change teams, that fraternity stays pretty close. So you have those relations.
The NFL is just different than any other sport that I know I’ve been around. It’s the production of what’s become a big part, I think, of American sports entertainment, if not the biggest part of it. And then you do get the opportunity to possibly have the interface with athletes for their entire career. If you really look back and see what players came into the league 15 or 16 years ago, those players I’ve officiated from the time they started, pretty much. And a few of them are still remaining now that I’m gone. So there’s a different type of bonding with the players maybe at the NFL level.
Now that you’re out of the refereeing game, do you think that officials get a bad rap in college basketball and the NFL?
I think the fact that you just said that I’m out of the officiating game, I need a minute to absorb that [laughs]. But as far as what the rap is with officiating, I did have the pleasure to be the referee that came back after the last labor discussions in the few weeks that we didn’t officiate [after the 2012 referee lockout, Steratore was the official for a Baltimore-Cleveland Thursday night game that was the first that season without replacement officials], and in a very unique way I know each of the NFL crews going back on the field that year had a kind of a warm appreciation moment, I think, with the fans and the NFL. And I got a chance to kind of feel that a little more because it was a Thursday night game, which was the first game of that week.
Our jobs and what we do and perform in athletics is a job where you very rarely leave a game and someone tells you that you won. In all the games I’ve refereed, one of the two teams have won every game. So one locker room and the next day at their practice, they’re coming off a win. And officials don’t really feel that. But that’s not a terrible thing, because officials really realize that the win when you’re an official is that you did right for the game. And when you’re an official, your job is to adjudicate and apply the rules as they’re written and designed for the betterment of the game.
So that doesn’t always appeal to a fan who actually has a favorite team, or something like that. Those types of negative or “we only focus on the mistake” kind of stereotype that officials get, it’s not really something that does affect officials because we kind of look at it, I think, in a little further distance than that. We’re looking at it from a lens that what we do is really for the game. And that’s much more profound and a deeper type of job we perform as officials rather than worrying if we get a bad rap from the general public at times. That’s just part of the business.
When you think about the advancement and evolution of technology in the NFL, how has that made officiating easier or more difficult over the course of your career?
You know, it’s not just the technology of the equipment we use, but also the technology of television and HD and how much more amazingly clear everything is to everybody. I think that’s naturally made things probably more micromanaged. You just see more now. You see more now on television than you see in real time even. It’s amazing how that is technologically with the game, and instant replay has continued to grow.
As an official, again, what you really want is what’s best for the game. And what’s truly best for the game is to get everything right. And knowing that it’s not a perfect world, and that’s not gonna happen on everything, and not every decision that we make, thank goodness is not evaluated in the replay.
You still want to make sure that the plays that the NFL and what they decided to use in replay— and now in college basketball, what they’ve implemented with the increase in technology— if the people who decide what they feel is the best for the game, the addition of these things is definitely we would hope stops the egregious error or can make something that would change the outcome of the game or definitely affect it in a big way, it can be corrected. And if it’s something that’s agreed upon to be a correctable situation, I think everybody involved wants that to happen.
We’re all human, so there’s times on the field where you react a certain way to a play and make a call, and replay overturns it, I don’t think it affects you in a negative way because you do realize you’re human. So at the end of the day, we all want to get it right. That’s the biggest part of the initiation and the implementation of all the new technology.
I think where we run into the tougher slope with replay, at times, is when we take a play that may be more subjective than just an objective situation and apply that. And I think that’s been one of the challenges with what is a catch and what isn’t a catch for the last eight or nine years more than the years before. And I think because some of that there’s still going to be this little piece of that evaluation and defining of what it is, which is when does he quit being a person trying to possess a pass or recover a fumble or loose ball and turns into the actual runner with full possession and all of the other elements.
It sounds great on paper and it looks like it can be done so easily, but I do think when you watch what we’ve all watched over the years, there’s that little area in between. So it’s subjective, and I think that’s what’s added the most with replay, is when you have subjective plays that we evaluate. As we continue to utilize replay for some of these situations, I think the truest challenge that we have now is the consistency and the education aspect of this. It helps if these plays are done in a very consistent fashion. And it’s a challenge for all of us. That’s what makes it so beautiful sometimes, too.
I was going to ask what rule you think was the most difficult for you to interpret as a referee.
With replay, I think it’s probably the catch. If you look and think about all the sports that are using replay, and think about all the plays they’re evaluating in replay. In hockey, it’s “did the puck clearly cross the blue line,” right? Or a home run, or is his foot on the bag or not on the bag? In all those plays, you could pretty much stop the camera and freeze-frame it and say “here’s a still shot, look. The ball’s in his glove but his foot’s off.”
In football, it’s no different. If a runner was out of bounds, or his knee goes down right before he loses possession, which in real time I can’t even explain to you how fast that would be. It’s so much more fast than it is even to the viewer at home. But those are plays you can pretty much see if you can get the right angle and a good look, and with the cameras we have and the technology, there’s better angles now and you see things that the officials can’t even see on the field. I mean, there are cameras on wires flying across the field now. If you can find those plays, and those plays are that quick and cut and dry, that this is what it is and this is what it isn’t, they’re easier.
And if you look at all the sports, I would think that as a pretty educated guess, that probably the most subjective of all decisions being ruled on in sports would probably be the catch. That’s gotta be the most challenging decision that I’ve ever dealt with, personally.
What do you think your job is going to be like when you start up in August or September?
My assumption is that it’s probably going to be the most pressure I think I’ve faced in a while because it’s a completely new venue, that it’s a different platform. Some of those surroundings initially will not be as comfortable as being in the middle of a football field or a basketball court. The newness of it, although I’m very excited to go into a new venture, it’s the reality and acceptance of “this is a different platform that I’m going to be doing.”
It’s the unexpected that drives you. It’s that wanting to prepare yourself for the unexpected. So I guess in its own way, although I won’t be in the same uniform I’m used to be in doing this, a lot of that will feel, I hope, the same. I think in the game day scenarios, being able to describe and evaluate and convey some good meaning to some replay decisions or other things that would involve officials with the NFL and college basketball, it’s an extremely exciting and unpredictable scenario because these plays come out of nowhere, as we know. So that part I’m really looking forward to.
And hopefully there is an opportunity to maybe educate the public a little more on how the preparations go and why maybe some of these rules are the way that they are. If the public gains a little more knowledge maybe from a different lens and appreciation for the entire game in this part of what we do as officials, I think it does nothing but help the game.