A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do NFL referees wear a band around their wrists?

January 13, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I was watching a football (NFL) game with a friend and noticed something odd. The referees wear a band around their wrists, which also has a band that comes over the top of the hand, through the fingers, and back to the wrist. It doesn't seem to matter which fingers the band goes through, but it normally goes through the middle finger. We've paid extra careful attention to the ref's hands since then, and can see nothing on this band. No stopwatch, no whistle, nuthin'. And no apparent support. Why in the heck do they wear these freakin' bands?!?

You've stumbled on a little secret of the NFL, guys. The refs wear those bands just to cause people like you to tear their hair out wondering. It's a trick to keep you watching the games long after they've ceased to be interesting because one team is getting destroyed by the other.

OK, I'm lying. The actual answer is so simple that I had to bulk this response up somehow. The refs use the strap to hold their note pads. Yup, that's it.

According to a co-worker who is also a substitute field timekeeper for an NFL team, the refs take notes on all sorts of things throughout the game, such as when TV timeouts occurred, who was penalized for what, etc. In thinking about it, I realized that I had noticed them taking little notes, but I'd never really thought much of it. Rather than having to stick the card in their pockets or wherever, it's easier for them to keep it strapped to their hands, where it's always at the ready.

If you watch closely, you may even notice them checking the card occasionally. After I saw your question, I paid close attention during the Rams-Bears blowout and several times saw the ref looking at his hand like a student checking a cheat-sheet during a test. If you're wondering why they don't just hold the card instead of strapping it on, that game answered that question as well when a ref literally tackled a Rams player who was in a fight with a Bears player. If he hadn't had the pad strapped on, I'm sure he would have lost it and had to chase it down the field somewhere. The sight of a ref tackling a player was funny enough, but the follow-up of a ref chasing a piece of paper down the field would have been too much to handle.


OK, OK, I was wrong! Or, to try to cast blame elsewhere, my co-worker, who should have known the answer to this, was wrong.

After this answer was posted, several high school refs wrote to tell me that, at least for them, the bands were used to keep track of downs. They move the loop from finger to finger so they know what down it is. Yeah, they have those guys on the sidelines who change the signs for that as well, and they have the TV as well, but I guess they still like to use the old tried and true ways just to make sure. (Well, most do. I watched one game in which the ref didn't have the band on his hand.)

In all likelihood, some refs do also use it to hold on to their notes, but this is not what its original intent was. I suspect the ref in a game or two at which my co-worker worked also used the band to keep his notebook handy, as a secondary use, and my co-worker assumed that was what it was for. Believe me, I won't use him as a resource again. (Jeez, ya think you can trust a guy who actually works with the refs at NFL games!) From now on I'm sticking to easy, less controversial questions, like those about evolutionary biology, historical religious beliefs, chemistry, physics, etc.!

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