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A Close Look at NFL Officials’ Beanbags

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Good morning, and happy winter solstice! I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely looking forward to the days getting longer again.

Now then: Eagle-eyed reader Derek Linn spotted something interesting the other day. He was looking at pics from a recent Steelers/Bengals game and noticed that referee Brad Rogers had his position (“R” for referee) and uni number (126) printed or embroidered on his beanbag. I’d never seen anything like that before!

You probably know this already, but just in case: All NFL officials carry a blue beanbag. The bag is usually used to indicate a change of possession, although it can occasionally be used in other circumstances. The bags are a familiar sight on zebras’ waistbands, but I’d never seen a personalized one until now.

Or at least I didn’t think I’d ever seen one before. Had the beanbags been typography-clad all this time and I just never noticed? Maybe it’s a new thing for this season? In an attempt to answer those questions, I spent more time than I’d like to admit poring over photos of NFL officials’ midriffs yesterday. Here’s what I found:

  • Brad Rogers has been wearing the personalized beanbags for several years, but he doesn’t always show the full “R 126.” Usually just part of the number is exposed, like this:
  • Another NFL ref, Brad Allen (yes, there are two refs named Brad), usually has an “R,” but no sign of a number:
  • Field judge Terry Brown has worn “FJ” on his beanbag, and I also found a photo where you can just barely see his uni number, 43, peeking out:
  • While there may be other examples of visibly personalized beanbags, they appear to be few and far between. Most officials just have plain blue (although they might be wearing them with the personalized typography facing inward, so it’s not visible):
  • As you may have noticed in the photos I’ve presented here, there’s no consistency regarding where the officials wear their beanbags. Left, right, center — it’s all over the place. Some officials even wear it on the back:


I have to say, this is peak Uni Watch. Big thanks to Derek Linn for making it all possible!

Meanwhile, I know some of you have officiated at the high school or even college level. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about all this.



ITEM! New Substack Interview

Last week I had a short blog post about a guy who set a Guinness World Record by running a marathon in an Arlington Renegades (XFL) uniform. I ended up doing an interview with the guy, whose name is Brian Goldsmith, a few days after that post ran, and it turned out to be so much fun that I’m using it as the basis for this week’s Uni Watch Premium article on Substack.

Goldsmith and I talked about a lot of stuff — his Renegades uniform, sure, but also the process for setting a Guinness record (something he’s attempted several times). He turned out to be a very entertaining character, and I think you’ll really enjoy the interview.

You can read the first part of the article here. In order to read the entire thing, you’ll need to become a paid subscriber to my Substack (which will also give you full access to my Substack archives). My thanks, as always, for your consideration.

While we’re at it: A Substack subscription makes an excellent holiday gift for that hard-to-please special someone! You can purchase a gift subscription here.



Raffle Reminder

In case you missed it last Friday, our annual year-end raffle is now up and running. Full details here.



Can of the Day

I never thought an oil could seem minty, but that’s how those stripes seem to me. Love how the roof’s peak is incorporated into the “H,” too.

• • • • •

I’ll be around today until about 11am, and then after that I’ll be busy with a family commitment. Play nice while I’m away, okay? Okay! — Paul

Comments (24)

    Now I want to deep dive into the entire referee belt ecosystem. They look like Batmans utility belt!

    It makes sense that the beanbags have at least the official’s position on them in case there are several thrown in the same area at the same time. Now I want to know more.

    Yes, that makes sense … if it matters that each official ends up with the same beanbag they started with. But let’s say they’re not labeled, so at some point I end up with your beanbag and you end up with mine. Why exactly would that be a problem?

    I wonder if Refs have superstitions about their equipment like athletes. Like how baseball players are about their bats and gloves. Probably not as superstitious as the players, but I but they are a little stitious.

    High school basketball referee here… I can assure you that they do. In general referees are open to scrutiny from every conceivable angle so many officials take their appearance very seriously (not all, but many).

    It’s common practice to carry 2 beanbags – one in your belt and 1 in a pocket. This is for the purpose of not having to run back and get your beanbag after a long play, like a punt return. Someone else picks it up and you have a spare. We can exchange back during a timeout or stoppage and it’s not hard figuring out whose belongs to whom. There are also different size, shape and material beanbags on the market that make it easier to distinguish. In the NFL, they are probably league-issued and identical. I could see a practical use for having the position or number if you want to go back and identify the official who threw the beanbag.

    When I worked as a back judge or deep wing, I put the second bag (for kicks) over the belt on my back like the side judge in the picture. Now I’m a referee — and I carry one bag that rarely leaves my belt.

    I don’t watch football, so it’s definitely a surprise to me to find out that some of the stripes on their shirts are wider at the top than at the bottom. Great stuff as always Paul!

    The officials’ uniforms got their current stripe configuration in 2006, though the current position/number font debuted in 2013.

    I was wondering if left/right had to do with handedness, but then you had to show the one on the back.

    I’ve been a HS official for 24 years in PA. Uniform code has always been rather strict, especially with more games being broadcast on TV/streaming. When I started out, beanbags were white, later changed to blue, and now most officials use black, although the blue and white are still acceptable but the white is rarely used anymore. No markings on beanbags, or at least I’ve never worked with anyone who had theirs personalized. Another interesting note is on penalty flags. The reasoning behind the introduction of black beanbags was to coincide with with officials switching from the white knickers to the long, black pants, so the beanbags were less obvious. The flags used at the high school (and I believe NCAA) level have a black top, whereas the NFL uses an all yellow flag. Zach was also spot-on with the Batman Utility Belt comment. We have been using O2O radios for a few years now, so having the radio receiver wired to an earpiece and mic, plus a referee wired with a battery pack for a stadium or TV mic is a lot. Also, not all stadiums have on-field 25/40 second clocks, so an additional device for for timing may be worn by the Back Judge on their belt.

    This is really cool. Thanks for sharing. I would never have thought about any of this.

    This is why I love Uni-Watch.

    Different sport, but similar situation… Wrestling officials (I’m referring to scholastic wrestling, NOT WWE!!!) carry a disc about the size of a round drink coaster, that’s red on one side, green on the other. It’s used for a “coin toss” that determines which wrestler gets choice of starting position in the 2nd period (and also in dual meets, which team has to send their guy out first on odd vs even weights). When I wrestled in HS, I remember at least one referee who had a disc that was personalized with his name, and “PIAA” (Pennsylvania’s sanctioning body for HS sports). This might have been something that was given to officials who got to work the state championships, or maybe the guy simply took it upon himself to get his disc personalized! Most of the officials had discs that were blank.

    Semi-related: For 13 years now, I’ve wondered if NFL coaches keep their own red challenge flags throughout the season, or if they’re provided one at the stadium on game day.

    So, if I am understanding this correctly, most officials don’t have fancy personalization on the beanbag, but some do. I guess if I were an official, at minimum, I might take a sharpie and write my number on it. It raises the question, for the ones that do have visible personalization, how did they do it? Rogers somehow got the font to look like the one on his shirt. The others look like standard embroidery fonts. Did they take the bean bags to an embroiderer?

    Fascinating stuff, I never noticed the bean bag before. Attention generally goes to flags being thrown and I once saw a hat being thrown in which should have been a bean bag I know because of this post.

    Been a while since I was a high school football official (I think all my stuff is still in the garage somewhere).

    I always wanted my beanbag in the same place all the time and easy to grab and drop because you didn’t want to have to look for it, you want to keep your eyes on the play, drop the bag as a kind of bookmark, knowing you will come back to it later because the play rarely ends there. So I kept it right side, just inside the hip bone, easy to get to. (We had white ones, with two…I guess pouches is the best word, so it looked like two rectangular bags joined in the middle. You would have one of the two tucked in and the other would hang outside your belt, so it had a very small visible footprint. The long blue ones are more obvious.)

    When I first started, a more experienced official tipped me that, in contrast to the beanbag (which you wanted to be super easy to access), you wanted your penalty flag to be just slightly harder to get to so the extra split second it would take would make you think “Do I really want to flag this?”

    You didn’t want to be so hard that it looks like a late flag (because that looks bad to outside observers, even though the idea is to be correct more so than timely), but that extra beat can save you.

    Some guys would put their flag in their pocket. We used to tie off a bulb on the flag and some guys would tape it up so it resembled a shuttlecock. And they would put the flag inside the waistband with that taped-up bulb sticking out so they could just grab that should it become necessary to throw a flag. But the bulb was all you would see. (And putting it on your non-dominant hand side meant you either would reach and throw with your non-dominant hand, providing just enough awkwardness to give you that extra beat, or you would reach across with your dominant hand, again taking just a smidge longer.)

    I was a back judge for a while and had a contraption called a Ready Ref on my belt. The play clock (if there wasn’t one on the scoreboard or a smaller one) was my responsibility. You would hit the Ready Ref when the referee (“White Hat” in those days, I think it may have switched since) signaled the ready for play, and it would vibrate with five seconds left. Only you would know it, and you would start a visible count with a gesture the quarterback could see to signify the play clock was winding down. If you ran out of time, you had a delay of game.

    I know soccer officials are connected by headsets now, and I reckon there are probably places where high school football officials use them. That would have been one more utility belt item, but back in the day, you just had a beanbag and a flag, a Ready Ref if needed, and your note card and golf pencil in your shirt pocket. I had a QB wristband with a card of notes to refer to, but experienced guys kept all that in their heads.

    The uniform, gadget and nonverbal communication ecosystems of the sports official are fascinating.

    It is certainly up to each official to decide where on their person to wear their bean bag. An official’s position on the field plays a big role in how likely that official is to need a bean bag. In a standard NFL crew, the R, U, DJ and LJ use their bean bags most often due to their proximity to fumbles. The BJ may also use bean bags during kicking plays, though the NFL rule set is so complex that I’m not certain. I would guess that the SJ pictured very rarely uses a bean bag, so it’s not surprising that a SJ/FJ would keep theirs on their back. There are also different types of penalty flags used at officials’ discretion. A FJ/BJ/SJ may have to call a foul 20 yards away, so they use a ‘long toss’ penalty flag that has been manufactured with extra fabric and an extra loop of tape to allow longer flight.

    From personal experience, the most challenging way to balance the belt arrangement was when I was a white hat. Typically, you have an official to official radio pack on your belt that is wired through your shirt to an ear piece. As a white hat, you also have a stadium microphone attached to your belt that is used when announcing penalties. Add a bean bag and 1-2 penalty flags and you certainly need a sturdy belt. As another commenter mentioned, some officials may wear a ‘Ready Ref’ play clock timer on their belt that keeps track of a 40/25 second play clock, though I doubt this is used in the NFL. Football officiating belts are often 2 inches in height to support the weight of accessories. For reference, compare the accessories on the belt of the white hats in this article’s picture vs. the non-white hat officials.

    Officials do consider their appearance when considering the location of penalty flags, which must be stuffed down the officials’ pants and held in place by a belt or kept in the officials’ pocket. You need a penalty flag to be accessible quickly but you never want it to fall out inadvertently. Many officials also use ‘shirt stays’ or ‘neat tucks’ to keep their shirts tucked in and professional throughout the game. These attach to the bottom of the referee shirt and clip onto an official’s tights or socks. The process of throwing and storing penalty flags throughout the game can make it easy to untuck your shirt.

    The deeps (FJ, SJ, BJ) all have 2 bags because they bag the end of punts as well as the usual use of a bag, to mark the spot of a run when there’s a fumble.

    I worked some small college football, but I’ve mainly been a high school official for the last eleventy-billion years. Bean bags are needed in a number of spots:

    We spot the end of a kick (important if there’s a post-scrimmage kick foul)

    We use our bags for momentum exceptions (if a ball is fielded inside the 5 with momentum carrying the player back into the end zone and it becomes dead there, it’s not a safety or touchback but will be brought to the spot of that bag)

    We spot the end of a run with a fumble that occurs beyond the line of scrimmage (as that spot can be used for penalty enforcement).

    We use the beanbag for spots of first touching (when K first touches a scrimmage kick or a free kick in the 10-yard neutral zone)

    The back judge carries two separate color bags (at least in our state). The end of the kick bag is white, the rest of our bags are blue.

    A bean bag is given to the chain crew to mark the line of scrimmage when it’s goal-to-go and there are no chains on the field. If the box operator has to bail cause players are coming at him, he can bail and we can reference the bean bag.

    I’m sure I missed some. Old timers use bags to remember their spot when they have plays carry out of bounds and they have to go into the benches. The right mechanic is for the opposite side official to give a cross-field spot and hold it. The NFL has some odd penalty enforcements, so they bag interceptions as well. If you see a HS official bag an interception, it’s someone who got that from watching the NFL as it serves no purpose for us.

    I’ll add to this later if I think of more.

    Here is my 2¢ after 27-years of football officiating…

    At lower levels up through college, most officials carry two penalty flags and at least one bean bag (two for deep officials like back judge, field judge, side judge). For me, the flags are on my hips, just above my pockets. The bean bags are worn in front near the belt buckle, so one doesn’t confuse a flag for a bag. Bags are dropped on punts to indicate first touching (by the defense), spot of the end of the kick (whether caught by the receiving team, or a touchback in the end zone), for fumbles/muffs, and occasionally dropped on the sideline when an official has to leave the spot to assist a player who’s ended up near the opponent’s bench.

    When I started, officials wore white knickers, so the white bean bags were intentionally less visible when worn on the belt. But white bags were difficult to clean, and could get lost when dropped on field markings. High school, college and NFL switched to blue bags for added visibility, and college started using black almost exclusively around 2010, when uniforms changed from white knickers to black pants. In Pinktober we break out the pink ones.

    On turf, blue and black bags are easier to spot and retrieve. On grass, it’s much more difficult. With televised games and perfectly manicured fields, you don’t have to worry about losing them. But for Friday Night Lights and weekend youth games, we don’t have the extra video help.

    Bags also come in different styles – the skinny bags used in the NFL have been used for almost 30 years. A vendor that sold them at my football meetings said he was the first to make them in that style. Another style is wider on one end (the bean side) with a weight on the skinner end, making it easier to drape over the belt. The style I use is wider and made of a shinier blue nylon, almost like a billfold. I never have difficulty finding it on the field after I’ve dropped it.

    Like most other equipment, I put my initials on them (bean bags and penalty flags) so I know which ones are mine. I’m used to their size and weight, I’d rather have them back in my possession at the end of a game. The initials are not obviously visible, usually signed where they fold or on a sewn-in tag.

    Great insight here by people in stripes.

    Yes, backup bags and flags are key. You never know when you will need more than one. (And if you run out of bean bags, you can throw your hat, but that tells you that was a wild play.)

    The other sartorial note that isn’t a thing anymore is that we would usually wear compression shorts under our knickers, and the guidance was to tuck your shirt into the compression shorts, not just into your knickers on top of the shorts, so that the bottom of your stripes did not show through the top of your pants. Now that pants are black (a look I think is fine for the NFL, but which I have never cared for below that), it’s obviously not an issue anymore. (It also helps with shirt displacement from constantly pulling flags and bags out of your waistband.)

    I don’t miss the knickers. At all.

    I’m a white hat and I never carry two flags. Twice now I’ve turned to my umpire and asked him to throw one up in the air for me. Less than professional? Maybe. Funny? Yes.

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