Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

The NFL is Changing: A Historic All-Black Referee Team

Posted on 30 November 2020 by Joe Kerrigan

2020 has been a year to forget for most, but the NFL are doing all they can to make it one to remember. In fact, it’s been a history-making one; Monday night football on November 23 featured an all Black officiating crew for the very first time in league history when the Los Angeles Rams played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

Black referees make history

Referee Jerome Boger led the crew with a combined NFL experience of 89 seasons and six Super Bowls. He was supported by umpire Barry Anderson, line judge Carl Johnson, side judge Dale Shaw, down judge Julian Mapp, back judge Greg Steed and field judge Anthony Jeffries.

Boger became just the third Black referee in NFL history when he was promoted from his position as line judge in 2006, with Johnny Grier being the first at the start of the 1988 NFL season.

“I am proud of my heritage and excited about my participation in this historic game,” Boger told NFL Operations website.

“The opportunity to work with a great group of Black officials and exhibit our proficiency in executing our assignment is something I am really looking forward to.”

While Boger, Anderson, Mapp, Shaw and Jeffries regularly work together, the NFL pulled Johnson and Steed in from other crews for Monday night’s game. It was a real statement of intent from the NFL.

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Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, told USA Today’s Jarrett Bell last week that the league went out of its way to bring the various officials together to send a message.

“This historic week 11 crew is a testament to the countless and immeasurable contributions of Black officials to the game, their exemplary performance, and to the power of inclusion that is the hallmark of this great game,” Vincent said.

The next step in historic diversity

It is rather fitting that the all-Black crew officiated a game between the Rams and the Buccaneers.

The Buccaneers are the first roster in league history to feature an all-Black co-ordinator crew according to USA Today.

Tampa Bay is the first team in league history with three Black coordinators in Todd Bowles (defense), Byron Leftwich (offense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams), in addition to two female assistant coaches on Bruce Arians’ staff in Lori Locust (assistant defensive line) and Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning).

The Rams have also historically played a key role in reintegrating the league, since 1946. The NFL did have some Black players from the early 1900s to 1933, but the league had no Black players from 1934-1946.

The league and team owners had enacted an unofficial policy to ban non-white players. When the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, that relocation created an opportunity to overturn that ban.

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Since the Rams would now play in the publicly funded Los Angeles Coliseum, pressure from the city’s stadium commission and local African American newspapers proved successful. The Rams broke the mould and signed the first African-American players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode for the 1946 season.

Washington and Strode are not just the first African-Americans to join the Rams, but also the first players to break the colour barrier in the modern NFL.

A political hotpot

The NFL has infamously silenced political statements in the past, but prior to the 2020 season kick-off in September, the league announced it will play Lift Every Voice and Sing, known as the Black national anthem, before every week 1 NFL game.

It also allowed teams to stencil “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” in their home endzone early on in the season in addition to allowing decals on the back of their helmets bearing the names or initials of the victims of systemic racism and police violence.

For example, Las Vegas Raiders tight end, Darren Waller, has had ‘Breonna Taylor’ stencilled into his helmet for the 2020 season.

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The all-Black officiating crew this week wasn’t the first time an NFL referee has been involved in making history this year. The Cleveland Browns’ week 3 encounter was the first regular-season game to feature women in the officiating crew as well as the respective side-lines including referee Sarah Thomas, the Browns chief of staff Callie Brownson and Washington offensive assistant and intern Jennifer King.

Although it is a shame that Black people and women still have to celebrate firsts in 2020, Boger and his officials will be honoured to continue the legacy of Burl Toler 55 years on. Toler was the first Black official in any major sport and was hired by the NFL in 1965.

Perhaps the magnificent seven have paved the way for an improved and inclusive league going forward.