Late in the fourth quarter, the home team was up, 16-14, and the visitors lined up at the 25 yardline for what would almost certainly be the game-winning field goal.
But wait … the kick was blocked. The ball was immediately scooped up by an agile defender from the home team who ran uncontested to the goalline for a 22-14 lead.
But wait … there was a whistle. The line judge reported to the referee the back judge had blown his whistle when the ball was kicked. The referee glared at the back judge, who sheepishly nodded his head affirmatively. Any thought the man with the white hat had of ignoring the whistle, to which no player reacted and likely did not hear, was erased when someone on the visitor’s sideline yelled, “We heard a whistle.”
The deed was done; the announcement to the sparse COVID-limited crowd was met with a deafening roar. The down was replayed and the field goal was kicked. Final score: Visitors 17, Home 16.
Most inadvertent whistles do not have a significant impact on the game and some are completely inconsequential. None can be justified and they usually have the root in officials who tweeted when they did not have sight of the ball. The stray toot in the play described, though, emanated from a misguided mechanic that has permeated the ranks of prep officials for decades.
The mechanic is to blow the whistle as soon as the ball is kicked on a try. The theory is nothing can happen to change the outcome of the play once the ball is kicked (happens to be true). If the ball goes through the uprights, it scores. Once it is apparent the kick has failed, the ball is dead by rule (NFHS 4-2-2i). The alleged benefit is the quick whistle, which by rule is actually inadvertent, will prevent unnecessary contact. It does not; the players cannot react instantaneously and they’ll continue to do what they started. There is no documented evidence that such a quick whistle can or has prevented an injury. Kick tries are on the low end of the types of plays in which injuries occur.
The truth is the premature whistle is a bad habit to develop and the official runs the risk of prematurely blowing the whistle on a field goal, which is exactly what happened. The other lesson in that incident is inadvertent whistles should never be covered up; it is dishonest. An official who denies blowing one will lose respect and credibility. Hoping no one heard it is futile. If the whistle is faint or if not all players let up, the whistle must be reinforced with repeated blasts and the play stopped.
Regardless of what mechanic is used, field goals are somewhat more susceptible to whistle problems. Some crews will tuck a lanyard whistle inside their shirt or put a finger whistle in their pocket when a field goal is attempted. That will increase the time to get to the whistle and perhaps save the day.
It should be understood there is nothing wrong with having a few plays where no one blows a whistle. If no official can see the ball when the play ends, there should not be a whistle blown. A couple of good habits to develop are waiting one second after seeing the ball become dead and letting an incomplete pass bounce twice before sounding the whistle. On a field goal or kick try, what would happen if no whistle were blown as the ball goes through the uprights? One whistle on a play is enough and that should be from the covering official. Two whistles are OK in most circumstances. More than that is an indication that someone on the crew is ball-watching instead of looking off ball.
Echoing a whistle is usually unnecessary. Repeating a whistle may be appropriate on occasion, such as when a crewmate’s whistle is weak and some players don’t stop. That is a frequent occurrence when a runner is stopped upright; repeated blasts on the whistle may prevent the runner from being unnecessarily thrown to the ground.
All officials should strongly consider having the whistle in their mouths prior to the snap in case a dead-ball foul occurs or a team’s timeout request is granted. A timely whistle there can prevent unnecessary contact. Once the snap occurs, no official should have a whistle in the mouth until the ball becomes dead. Remember that, by rule, the whistle rarely causes the ball to become dead. Blowing the whistle only confirms that something has happened to cause the ball to become dead.
After a play ends, blowing the whistle to get the attention of another official makes sense. Officials who see that a flag has been thrown should alert the crew by giving multiple short blasts of the whistle. That helps ensure the box is not moved or the chains moved until the penalty is sorted out. A good example where that technique is handy is when the kicker is roughed on a punt. Everyone except the referee and a few players are well downfield and likely don’t recognize the play is coming back.
An official should use the voice, not the whistle, to prevent or break up extracurricular activity, but the whistle has a lot of routine uses. Some plays are preceded by the referee’s ready signal, but at the end of a play the wings will have the most whistle usage. At that time, unless it’s a quarterback sack, the referee does not need to blow the whistle. The same goes for the umpire, who should refrain from using the whistle to confirm the ball is dead at the end of the play unless the ball is clearly in sight and no other official has blown a whistle. That might also serve to prevent hearing the coaches yell, “Why aren’t you blowing the whistle?” It also seems whenever there is a whistle from the back judge, everyone already knows the ball is dead such as on touchdowns and touchbacks.
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