It's obvious we need a new mix in Congress. A few months ago, I suggested electing civil engineers — the people who design and construct buildings, highways, bridges and water systems — because they are quiet, disciplined problem-solvers. Another good profession might be NFL referees because they follow the rules and make instantaneous, pressure-packed decisions in the best interests of the common good, regardless of what loud people say.
It’s obvious we need a new mix in Congress. A few months ago, I suggested electing civil engineers — the people who design and construct buildings, highways, bridges and water systems — because they are quiet, disciplined problem-solvers. Another good profession might be NFL referees because they follow the rules and make instantaneous, pressure-packed decisions in the best interests of the common good, regardless of what loud people say.
That’s the life Walt Coleman has lived for 23 years, plus five years before that refereeing Southwest Conference football games. Coleman, who during the week is an executive with Little Rock’s Coleman Dairy, is best known for making the “tuck rule” call late in the fourth quarter of a snowy AFC playoff game 10 years ago. That’s when New England quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass, pumped his arm, started to bring the ball back into his body, and then lost it when he was hit by Oakland’s Charles Woodson. Oakland recovered, and the ballgame appeared over.
However, when Coleman looked at the replay, he saw that, under the little-known tuck rule, what happened was considered a forward pass, which meant New England kept the ball. The Patriots ended up winning the game and went on to win the Super Bowl. Coleman originally had ruled the play a fumble. Most people watching that game thought it was a fumble. Even Brady thought he had fumbled it. But the rules are the rules, and it’s Coleman’s job to know them and enforce them — not change them as he sees fit.
“The officials of the NFL, we’re the integrity of the league,” he told me. “We have to do what’s right to the best of our ability.” That means, at times, ignoring the boos of a stadium full of biased people who don’t know the rules like he does and ignoring the public scorn that occurs after the game ends. It’s not his job to please 80,000 people making a lot of noise in his vicinity.
It’s his job to make the call. And Coleman knows what it’s like to displease people. When he arrived back in his office after the tuck rule game, he discovered a blizzard of angry faxes from Oakland fans. When his crew blew a call that caused Buffalo to lose a game, a radio DJ gave out Coleman’s office number. In 2008, when he ruled that the Pittsburgh Steelers had scored a game-winning touchdown against Baltimore — in a game played at Baltimore — he returned to the office to find 58 phone messages from Ravens fans. He listened to a couple of the rants and then deleted them all. Coleman said he is able to take such abuse in stride, in part because of the lessons he learned from his late father, Buddy Coleman, who refereed 26 years in the Southwest Conference.
“What my dad told me is they’re just talking to the shirt,” he said. “They’re talking to the striped shirt. They’re not talking to you personally. They don’t even know you personally.” I’m thinking we could use more of that in Washington. What if we elected more people willing to do what is right even if it meant displeasing the loudest people — in the NFL, fans in the stadium; in Congress, special interest groups? What if we elected people who have proven they can make quick decisions to infiltrate a Congress that hasn’t been able to decide on a budget, or much of anything else, in three years?
Officials who have shown they respect the NFL’s rulebook on Sunday — would they be more likely to respect the Constitution in Washington? When I asked Coleman what would happen if every member of Congress were replaced for four years with the NFL’s 120 referees, he laughed. It’s the system, not the people, he said.
“I think we would have the same problems as the people that are there now because you still have everybody (having) their own opinions about stuff,” he said. “I understand you still have the Constitution and so forth, but you still have all these people with all these needs, and how do you deal with all those? I don’t have an answer. I just know how difficult what they do is, and unfortunately, they are in a position where they have to please people … and I don’t have to please a soul. I just have to do what’s right.”
That’s a charitable observation from a guy who spends his Sundays calling them like he sees them, and maybe he’s right. But I’m still thinking about that integrity he was talking about, and how we could use more of it in Congress.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.