Ex-official Wayne Mackie is now making calls to improve the game
Using technology, training and diversity, he wants to improve the league’s approach to officiating
NEW YORK — Wayne Mackie stares at the screen with his hands folded, monitoring Sunday’s NFL games at the Art McNally GameDay Central. He’s identifying plays to use for training purposes for the league’s officiating staff.
Fifteen flat-screen monitors flash all the NFL games this afternoon, including seven midday matchups. In front of each monitor sits a tech employee who alerts the senior officiating staff of potential replay situations or plays they need to be made aware of.
“Interception in Miami,” someone shouts, “fumble recovery by defense,” screams another, with headsets on. All use Xbox controllers to view game video. “It’s a place where everyone works hard and operates as a team,” Mackie said. “Where respect is shown toward each other and everyone goes above and beyond their duties.”
If there is a replay, Mackie, who is vice president of officiating evaluation and development, might lend assistance to Alberto Riveron, senior vice president of officiating, and Russell Yurk, vice president of instant replay and administration.
On non-game days, the trio reviews each play of every game, discusses plays that could be used by the league’s competition committee and make recommendations for rule changes. They also work with former on-field referees to evaluate how game officials perform each week.
“Wayne is excellent at communicating and managing the NFL’s highly motivated officials in identifying evaluation and training needs, both real-time during the season as well as ongoing development in the offseason,” said Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations.
Mackie is responsible for devising a rules exam that officials are required to take every week and schedules the officials’ game assignments. “It’s all about training the official to be in the right position to make the correct judgment on the field,” Mackie told The Undefeated.
His roots are in BLACK COLLEGE football
Mackie, 59, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He recalls a great childhood when people in the neighborhood treated each other like family. Sports were a significant part of his upbringing and kept him out of trouble. He played high school football but not in college. His parents stressed education first. “They required us to achieve excellence in the classroom before being able to play anything. If my grades were not up to par, there was no basketball, baseball, football, or going outside to play,” he said. So, he kept an A average through high school.
The thought of an officiating career began when Mackie was playing basketball at the famous West 4th Street tournament in New York City. Buddy Keaton, a longtime basketball official in New York, asked him to try it. “I first dabbled with refereeing intramural basketball games in college just to make a little extra cash, but I had no intention of doing anything with officiating after I graduated,” Mackie said.
It wasn’t until he attended an NFL officiating clinic in the historically black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference at North Carolina A&T in 1995 that Mackie “caught the bug” after hearing Leo Miles, the supervisor of the officials in the NFL office. “After five minutes of him speaking, I was like, yeah, this is something I want to do,” Mackie said. “Because he was just enthusiastic. He made you believe that this was a goal that you could strive for and you could achieve.”
At the time, the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) required refs to officiate college football games for 10 years, take classes and a national test in order to officiate in the league. Mackie started officiating in 1992, first in Pop Warner, sandlot leagues and high school junior varsity. The next steps were working varsity games, then NCAA Division II and Division III games in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference.
He officiated in the MEAC from 1997-2000 and in the Atlantic 10 Conference from 2000-2001. Then he joined the Big East Conference from 2002-2006 and officiated in the Arena League from 2002-2006. He was in NFL Europe from 2003-2005, before entering the NFL in 2007.
In his 10 seasons as an NFL official, he is most gratified that he was invited back each season, that he refereed eight playoff games and was head linesman for Super Bowl 50 and two conference championship games.
That vast experience is how Mackie attained his current position in the league.
“It’s like dealing with wisdom and knowledge,” Vincent said. “Wayne brings tremendous knowledge of not only what it takes to officiate at the highest level of the game, but also the experience of the evaluation and development process to sharpen officiating skills across all the teams.”
“I have tremendous respect for Wayne, both as a football official and as a person,” Yurk said. “Wayne has a long track record of success in the NFL and he is highly respected by his peers. I am also always impressed with his strong devotion to his family and to football.”
Thanks to technology, the 10-year college football experience requirement has changed for NFL officials because they have more access with iPads, computers and training programs that allow them to train continually.
“There are officials that demonstrate the characteristics and abilities that we look for, that have less than 10 years’ experience in college,” Mackie said. “I do believe that with the increase in technology, younger officials have more access to the tools that will allow them to learn and be successful much sooner than when I was moving up through the ranks.”
Training videos help officials visualize and recognize plays and give them direction on applying the rules and being in position. They are sent to the officiating staff weekly, helping them evaluate calls.
Mackie attends most of the Thursday night football games alone to observe and evaluate officiating crews and answer questions that they may have about mechanics and philosophies. Mackie also evaluates the officiating crew’s performance in those particular match-ups.
The first NFL game Mackie officiated was on Sept. 10, 2007, opening night in San Francisco, with the 49ers versus the Arizona Cardinals. Mackie said he felt excited and anxious for the game to begin, but not nervous because of his preparation, which is among his important keys to life.
For himself and others, Mackie has identified certain characteristics that predict success in officiating, referring to them as the “C’s” to success: commitment, confidence, character, credibility, communication, courage, consistency and common sense.
But he felt fortunate that night to be on a crew of veteran officials led by Walt Coleman, who made him feel “comfortable” and installed in him the “confidence” needed to become a successful NFL official.
“He didn’t make me feel like a ‘rookie,’ ” Mackie said. “He told me to trust my instincts and continue to do what got me to the NFL.
“One older official always told me, ‘If you’re prepared, you never have to be nervous,’ ” Mackie continued. “And if you’re confident, you never have to worry about what other people have to say. That’s how my career went. I didn’t care what other people had to say and I was pretty successful.”
Another experience Mackie will never forget is returning to the field after the 2011 NFL officials lockout ended. It lasted four weeks, until there was an agreement between the NFLRA and the NFL.
Like his first NFL game, returning from the lockout brought excitement, with everyone watching.
“It was in Baltimore, and it was exhilarating,” Mackie said. “The love that we received from the fans, the players, broadcasters, and even the hotel staff was amazing. It showed all of us — the crew and the entire officiating staff — how much we were appreciated and how much we meant to the game of football. We knew we were truly back when the first penalty was called on Baltimore, and the boos rained down.”
And those boos are constant for NFL officials.
No matter how much technology and experience are available, mistakes happen and stressful situations occur. But for Mackie and his team of referees, their performance is not just evaluated by the NFL but by the public too. There are times when his friends, some of whom are NFL officials, disagree with decisions made by the Art McNally GameDay Central techs, Mackie, Riveron and Yurk.
“Even in disagreement, we listen and aim to build a culture of mutual respect and open lines of communication,” Mackie said.
Then there’s dealing with the constant scrutiny from NFL fans. Mackie calls the scrutiny challenging but not frustrating.
“The difficult part of the job is to get everyone on the same page when we convey information to the staff on how plays should be officiated and to get the officials to understand the message being conveyed as opposed to whether or not a downgrade was given on a particular play,” Mackie said. “The key is consistency. The more consistent we are as evaluators with the messaging, the more consistent the game will be called on the field.”
Preparation and having the humility to acknowledge when his team makes a mistake is important. But Mackie doesn’t spend time worrying about what the public thinks of their calls. He never cared during his tenure on the field and still doesn’t care now in the booth, along with his team, who carries the same mindset.
“Yes, there are times when we make mistakes and errors in judgment,” Mackie said. “It is not intentional. You can’t find a group of men and women anywhere that have more integrity than our officiating staff. Our mantra is that if we seek perfection, we can achieve excellence. When mistakes are made, we learn from them and put ourselves in a position not to make them again. We strive to be perfect in every game we officiate.”
Despite the mistakes, he said, they have a 95-98% accuracy rate on their penalty calls.
He knows everyone expects perfection, but acknowledges how unlikely that is. Case in point: the famous “no-call” for pass interference in the 2019 NFC Championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints. The call may have cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl, and was later called a “blown call.”
“Look, officiating is under the microscope because there’s more eyeballs, and social media we didn’t have to worry about 20 years ago,” said Dave Gardi, senior vice president of football operations. “The way TV gives people the ability to see a lot of different angles in slow motion, along with the number of cameras in stadiums, everyone has an opinion.
“By standing on the field, I realize how quickly everything moves, and I think people forget that when they’re evaluating a play, a call or no call, at home watching it on TV. So the officials have a really hard job.”
A more diverse environment
Another challenge for Mackie and the league is creating a more diverse atmosphere. The NFL has 122 officials in 2019 and most are male. When Mackie accepted his current role in 2017, there were 11 minorities and three female officials. This season, they have 21 minority officials and two female officials.
The first female referee, Sarah Thomas, a down judge, was hired in 2015 and still officiating in the NFL. There are two women in the NFL’s Officiating Development program: LaShell Nelson works with Conference USA and Robin DeLorenzo is with the Mid-American Conference. Both were discovered through the NFL’s scouting program, which introduces exceptional college referees to the expectations and requirements of officiating in the NFL.
Potential referees in the program attend the NFL’s annual preseason officiating clinic to begin learning the difference between college and professional officiating. They also participate in NFL minicamps and training camps, officiate preseason games and work an NCAA postseason all-star game. They take tests at the end of the season.
“Since I’ve been in my position, we’ve increased the number of minorities and the number of women in the [development] program,” Mackie said. “So, yes, we are moving towards that. We’re trying to increase the numbers, and I can say that is definitely a goal of ours in the program.”
“It’s just making sure that the pipeline is flush with folks that want to get into officiating,” Gardi said. “Just trying to expose more female officials to those levels, so they can kind of come into that pipeline that leads into the NFL.”
Mackie does not miss his days on the field. He’s accomplished every goal he set coming into officiating. Now he spends with Tonya, his wife of nine years, and their three daughters, Amber, Krystal and Jade, whose birth Mackie said was “the most profound experience of his life.” Outside of the family, he wiles away his time playing golf, watching movies and listening to music.
Through the challenges and stressful times, his love for officiating never vanished. It’s why he’s still involved with the profession. What he enjoys most is the camaraderie. He’s made lifelong friends who genuinely understand the scrutiny and all that goes along with being an on-field official. But if there’s one thing he wishes people understood about the officiating, it’s that nobody’s perfect.
“Do players fumble? Do quarterbacks throw interceptions, and do coaches call the wrong play? Yes, they do,” Mackie said. “Is it intentional? No, it’s not. It’s part of the great game of football.”