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Real People Money Diaries: College Football Referee

You have to work your way up from fifth grade football, but after two or three decades, it starts to pay off

In this series, we explore how different people make ends meet in an age of increasing inequality and job instability, by looking at what they do, how much they make, what the job is like and what their hopes are for the future.

Name: Dan Capron
Age: 63
City: Chicago
Occupation: Attorney, Big Ten football referee
Career goal: Refereeing the college football national championship  

Earning Grocery Money

I just finished my 20th and final year refereeing in the Big Ten. But it took me 19 years of officiating just to get to the Big Ten — I first stepped on the field in 1981.

I started the same place just about everybody starts, which is at the bottom. In Chicago, kids start out in fifth and sixth grade playing football, and that’s where I started officiating. I did a couple of years of grammar school ball before I even moved into the high school ranks.

When I started, I thought it would be a fun, interesting way to earn some extra money. I was a brand-new lawyer, I was newly married and we didn’t have any money, and I’m thinking, Gee whiz, how about if I just go out on a Sunday afternoon? If I work a doubleheader of the grammar school games, I can earn a little extra money and pay for groceries — and that’s exactly what the motivation was. 

They paid me about $25 per game, so $50 for a double header. They didn’t pay you until the end of the season, so right before Thanksgiving I’d get this check for several hundred dollars, and it would help pay for Christmas. It was just a fun, pleasant way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Climbing Up the Pyramid

Refereeing is a pyramid, so if you want to move from the bottom level to the second-to-the-bottom level, it’s very easy to do. But the higher you go, the more difficult it gets to advance. It’s reasonably easy for someone who is reasonably competent to get to a Division III collegiate level. If you have the dedication and if you spend the time learning the rules and the mechanics of how to officiate a football game, most people can get to that level. To go beyond that, you need some luck — you have to be seen by people who are in a position to advocate for you, and then ultimately, you have to come to the attention of the decision makers at the Division I level.

There are a number of clinics around the country, and most of the Division I supervisors attend those clinics. That’s an opportunity to get to know them. I had an extremely kind supervisor of officials at the Division III level who was a very good friend of a supervisor of officials in the Big Ten. He advocated for me, and the Big Ten supervisor took a chance on me.

Being on the Field

Being on the field in the middle of a football game is like a drug! The drug, really, is adrenaline. When you come out of the tunnel in a place like Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State or Ohio State, and the packed crowd is jacked, the band is playing, maybe there’s a flyover, the teams are on the sideline, it’s one of the most American things that you can think of. It almost brings a tear to my eye even thinking about it. It just gives you chills. There’s so much passion involved — passion in a healthy way. It’s not war, it’s not life and death, this is an American sport, this is what we do. I never wanted to go to the NFL by the way — for me, college football is the best. It’s the coolest job in America.

Being a Big Ten football official has made me a better lawyer in terms of the skills that I have to call upon every Saturday, but it has also raised my profile in the legal community beyond which it ever reasonably would have, had I not been an official. When I go into a courtroom the first thing that people want to ask about is: Where were you last week? Where are you going next week? Have you had Michigan? Have you had Notre Dame? All they want to talk about is college football. And I will talk about it anytime, any place, to any person!

Balancing It All

I tell people with a completely straight face that the practice of law is my part-time job. “Referee,” which is often used as a general term for anybody on the field, is a specific position on the field. The referee is the crew chief, they wear the white hat and have the microphone and signal to the crowd. Among those responsibilities is to make sure that everybody on the crew understands the logistics of the next game in terms of travel and hotel. 

We have to be there on the evening before the game, so typically we have to arrive Friday, late afternoon. Then the crew goes to dinner together Friday night, and after dinner we go into a pregame conference for one or two hours in which we look at film, both of our game from last week where we try to identify things that we can do better, and also film of the teams that we’re about to see the following day. A lot of the preparation for game day takes place during the week preceding the game. We’ve got to watch a ton of film. We take rules quizzes every single week.

It requires balance. The officials who get in trouble are the ones that can’t maintain that balance. If all of a sudden you find yourself in the middle of a divorce because you’re not giving your family their due, or if you’re getting laid off from your job because you’re not able to do what you’re supposed to be doing at work, that’s problematic. So one of the things that the Big Ten expects of its officials is to be able to maintain that delicate balance between football, family and your job.

I bring my wife to nearly all my games. As part of our compensation package we receive two game tickets for each game we’re assigned to. My wife travels with me and goes to the games. After 20 years, she knows more about college football than most people you meet in the course of a day.

The Money and the Expenses

Let me put the money in context. Currently, a high school official in Chicago will earn $70 to $80 a game. A Division III college official will generally make $125 to $175 a game, depending on what conference you work for. I went right from Division III to the Big Ten, so I skipped a couple of steps. The per-game rate is somewhat proprietary, but in general terms, a Big Ten official will make $35,000 to $40,000 a year.

So it’s not really a profession, it’s still an avocation. But for those who seek to take the next step to get to the NFL, that’s a game changer. An NFL official is typically going to make $150,000 to $200,000 a year. So as you can see, officiating is an avocation all the way from grammar school all the way up into the Division I ranks. Once you get to the NFL, if you wanted to do that for your career you really could.

Travel and accommodations are paid for by the athletic conference, but it’s not precise. We used to fill out travel expense reports with mileage, airfare and everything, and with 66 officials, it just got to be administratively burdensome. Eventually they said, ‘We’re going to look at the conference-wide average for the average travel expense per game. We’ll boost that by 20 percent, and that’s going to be included in your game check.’ So since I live in Chicago, if I get a game at Northwestern, good for me, I’m making out. But if I get Penn State, and the following week I’m at Rutgers and then the following week I’m in Nebraska and I’m flying all over the place having to pay for airfares… well, too bad.

But over the expanse of a season or multiple seasons, it generally works out. There’s also an incentive to be economical, because if we splurged we’d be spending our own money at that point.

Keeping Up

We have to weigh in every year at our clinic. People often ask me what you have to weigh. The answer’s very simple: You’re measured against what you weighed last year. So we tell the rookies, ‘Hey kid, put some rocks in your pocket because you’re gonna need it down the road!’ I have some dear friends in the SEC, and those officials have to complete a mile and a half run at their clinic within a certain time — and of course the time is gauged by how old you are. 

But overall, it’s a little bit of an eye test. If somebody looks out of shape or obese, they’re going to get a phone call. You’re supposed to be fit and look like an athlete yourself. And if you can’t meet that eye test, well, you’re probably not going to be in the Big Ten for very long.

Making the Big Calls

People have often asked me which is harder — law or officiating? And without hesitation I say officiating is harder. Because not once in my entire legal career has a judge ever not given an attorney time to go look something up. ‘Counsel, how much time would you need to brief that point?’ ‘Well your honor, how about four weeks?’ ‘Would six be better?’ ‘Well, sure, we’ll see you in six weeks.’ But when something happens on the football field, it happens at full speed. You get one look from whatever angle you’re at and you have to make an instantaneous decision. Now of course, instant replay has been a wonderful addition to college football. But we’re human like anybody else and even though we’re pretty good at what we do, and our accuracy rate is staggeringly high, we’re not perfect. And we want to be perfect, so replay has just been a terrific addition for officials. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like it. I’d rather be a jerk for five minutes than for the rest of my life!

Stepping Down

Retiring was my decision, not my boss’. I’m going to be 64 this year, and I’ve begun to notice a slight diminution in my physical skills, even if my boss hasn’t. I didn’t want to wait to the point where they told me that I was done — I have too much respect for the game, and I wanted to go out while I was still able to function.

I reached all of my career goals: I’ve been able to work the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Peach Bowl when it was a national semifinal. The pinnacle of my career was working the National Championship. I also worked two Big Ten championships.

But I think the highlight of my career, as mundane as this might sound, are the people I’ve gotten to know in officiating. My nearest, closest friends in life are the men I’ve officiated football with, and what I’m going to miss the most is the relationships with the people with whom you go out there, on the field, in that pressure-cooker atmosphere. You don’t know what pressure is until you work Ohio State-Michigan, okay? And I had their game that went into double overtime. That’s pressure! When you can function in that atmosphere, not alone but as a member of a team of officials that prepare hard and go out there together and knock it out of the park, the feeling is indescribable.