Before they ever officiate a professional game, NFL officials have the league’s nearly 300-page rulebook drilled into their hippocampus. Which is why we know the two officials captured on video appearing to collect an autograph from Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Mike Evans had to have known better.
Following Sunday’s Panthers-Buccaneers game, two officials identified as side judge Jeff Lamberth and line judge Tripp Sutter tracked down Evans for what appeared to be an autograph. The videos, taken by Carolina Panthers reporter Sheena Quick of FOX Sports Radio 1340, have already sparked an investigation by the league office, according to the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
There’s been no confirmation that Evans was asked to sign an autograph, but the NFL’s investigation signals that this was not a routine action for officials.
There is absolutely no reason an official should be autograph-seeking in the middle of the tunnel after a game, if that is indeed what happened. The appearance of fraternization with players creates a cloud of suspicion that the league would rather avoid. Gathering Evans’ John Hancock, allegedly, didn’t lead to a Bucs victory, as they were upset by the Panthers. Evans’ dropped touchdown and Tom Brady’s ineffectiveness did the Bucs in, but it does breach the strict professional boundaries that the NFL has in place.
Interestingly, Lamberth, in his 21st season as an official, and Sutter, in his fourth, knew who to ask, and Evans obliged without thinking twice. However, several onlookers gawked at the exchange while they headed back to the locker room. This also didn’t appear like an impromptu signing. The officials spot Evans, call his name, get him to sign, and walk their separate ways after fewer than 15 seconds, which gives the appearance that the officials had discussed something with Evans before entering the tunnel.
The most galling part of this incident is that the severe precedent for violating the non-autograph offense is well-known. Before a 1995 game between the Packers and Buccaneers, game official Jerry Bergman messed around and found it. Bergman, a 30-year-veteran official, sought Brett Favre out to autograph eight football cards for his grandson. I don’t know if it’s worse that he went searching for Favre or that he was hounding players before the game. Reportedly, Bergman had also asked for autographs from running back Errict Rhett and LB Hardy Nickerson, who declined. Nickerson was ejected by official Walt Coleman in the fourth quarter for his role in a fight. For his part, Bergman was fined and disciplined, but never worked another NFL sideline again.
Bergman is the only modern NFL official punished for autograph-seeking on the job, but even Rhett and other Bucs teammates acknowledged that Bergman wasn’t the first to ask. In the 30 years since an example was made of Bergman, no officials have been caught, in part because they haven’t been irresponsible enough to ask for it in plain view of media and recording devices.
I mean, look at these guys. Shouting out Mike in the tunnel and then asking Evans to sign your scrap paper, allegedly, like it’s a high school yearbook is amateurish. They’re as giddy as teenagers for Mike Lynn Evans III. You gotta be kidding me. No offense to Mike and his eight-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but it’s incredibly poor judgment for an official to risk his six-figure salary for an autograph from someone who just dropped a potential 75-yard touchdown with 11 yards of separation between him and the nearest corner. How far has Tom Brady fallen? There are two lessons for officials to take from this. Don’t risk your job for anyone not in the top 20 of the most recent NFL 100. And even then, you’d have to do it more surreptitiously. The questions now are what will the NFL do, and will they keep their jobs?