Is the 'chain gang' obsolete? Why embracing technology won't solve everything (2024)

  • Kyle Bonagura


    Is the 'chain gang' obsolete? Why embracing technology won't solve everything (1)

    Kyle Bonagura

    ESPN Staff Writer

    • Covers the Pac-12.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Attended Washington State University.
  • Kris Rhim

Jun 6, 2024, 06:00 AM ET

GENE STERATORE WILL forever be linked with index cards.

With 4:49 remaining in the fourth quarter and the score tied between the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders in 2017, Steratore, a now-retired NFL referee, signaled for a first-down measurement.

Out came the stadium workers affectionately known as "the chain gang," carrying their signature orange-and-black equipment to see if the Cowboys had indeed made the line to gain. It was so close that the announcers, players and even the officials themselves seemed unsure.

That's when Steratore pulled out his famous -- or infamous, for Raiders fans -- index card and attempted to wedge it between the ball and the marker. He then smirked -- perhaps at the absurdity of a billion-dollar enterprise relying on chains and index cards -- and signaled first down. The Cowboys went on to win 20-17.

After the game, Steratore, who declined to comment for this story, said he didn't use the card to make the final decision. "The card was used as nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done," he told a pool reporter. "My decision was visually done based on the look from the pole."

In a game that flexes technological advancements from GPS tracking for players on the field to animated Nickelodeon broadcasts, that index card epitomized the NFL's antiquated measuring process dating more than 100 years.

At the league meetings in March, NFL owners approved using optimal tracking in the preseason, a system which -- after the ball is spotted by hand -- notifies officials instantly if a first down was gained. At the end of the preseason, they will make a decision for a full rollout in 2024, according to multiple league sources.

Owners also approved expanded testing of a skeletal tracking system designed by sports technology company Hawk-Eye Innovations, which adds cameras to stadiums to track players, officials and the ball. In the preseason, the NFL will provide back judges with smartwatches assisted by the skeletal system that include basic game details and will vibrate when there is a delay of game, according to multiple league sources.

But those potential changes don't necessarily mean the end of the chain gang, just the end of the chain gang as we know it. The chains will remain on the sidelines in any scenario that the NFL moves toward, according to multiple league sources, but would be a backup for measurements and a visual indicator of where the line to gain and line of scrimmage are for coaches, players and fans in the stadium.

"Our current system for how we measure first down has a certain level of accuracy. I won't say it's 100 percent because the element of human error is in almost everything," said Chargers team president and future of football committee co-chair John Spanos. "What we want to make sure of is that this new technology is going to be more accurate than that. And then can we get it as quickly, if not quicker? And so it takes time to test those things out."

A FIRST DOWN in the NFL has always been 10 yards and, since the league's inception in 1920, it has relied on the part-time employees who make up the chain crew to assist officials with measuring down and distance.

There isn't an application or a blueprint to become a member of a chain crew; most of those who make up the staff arrived through recommendations from former workers or direct connections.

John Antillon has been in charge of the Rams' chain crew since it returned in 2016 to L.A., where he is responsible for staffing and logistics for the group. Antillon, a Division III referee for 30 years and former assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol, reports to the Rams equipment manager.

Antillon keeps a makeshift roster of 12 people who can work the chains, ranging from high school principals and firefighters to a podcast host. Antillon's two sons are part of the group, which includes people recommended by the Rams, typically with some football background or others who Antillon says the team can rely on to represent the league properly. They work only on game days for what Antillon says is roughly six hours.

After the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL shrunk chain crews from eight to five and the eliminated on-field staffers became alternates. If any member from the group of five can't make a game, Antillon chooses an alternate to replace them. There are other opportunities for alternate chain staffers to work the field, including when the NFL needs to staff pylon cameras.

Like referees, the NFL considers the chain crew part-time employees, but their pay is significantly different. Referees can reportedly earn as much as $200,000 annually, but those who operate the chains are paid minimum wage.

"We all don't do it for the money," Antillon said. "We do it for just the opportunity to be on the field in that environment, and really consider it a privilege to be there."

He's hopeful the league will keep the chain crews around as a necessary visual aid for those in the stadium -- and so he can continue to brag about his Sundays to friends.

But it doesn't come without its risk.

Nick Piazza, a ninth- and 10th-grade science teacher at C.F. Rowley Alternative School in Chalmette, Louisiana, and driver's education instructor, had evaded sideline skirmishes for the nine years he had been working on the New Orleans Saints chain crew.

But on Dec. 8, Piazza's injury streak ended miserably. In the second quarter of the Saints game against the Detroit Lions, running back Alvin Kamara tumbled out of bounds and into Piazza.

Piazza laid on the ground holding his lower left leg, which was turned in the opposite direction, and screamed loud enough to be heard on the TV broadcast.

"It just happened so quick," Piazza said. "He got pushed at the last second, and he fell, and he was just rolling. And he rolled into my knee."

Doctors diagnosed Piazza, 39, with a dislocated knee, a fibula fracture, a torn ACL and meniscus damage. He is walking after a second surgery in January, but he has nerve damage to the foot and a condition called "drop foot," which keeps him from being able to lift it.

Even though Piazza isn't sure when he'll walk normally again, he is hopeful he can return to the sidelines next season. He is planning a late-season return, because not even his gruesome injury is enough to keep him away.

"I'm on IR right now," he said laughing.

PRIOR TO THE United States Football League's launch in 2022, Fox Sports, along with the league, approached startup sports data company Bolt6 to develop an optical tracking system like the one the NFL has tested. The goal, more or less, was to help the viewing experience and speed up the game by removing the need for the chain gang. And it worked.

Bolt6, which also has optical tracking solutions for NASCAR, the PGA Tour, pro tennis, volleyball and the America's Cup, installed six cameras in each stadium which allowed its technology to precisely determine where the ball is spotted.

The process essentially begins at the beginning of a drive. At that point, the system is able to accurately note the ball's location. When a play is run and the ball is spotted by hand, it is capable of instantly notifying officials if a first down was gained. It's a time-saving process more than anything in that it prevents the need for the chains to be marched out on the field for a measurement.

In the second quarter of the season-opening UFL game between the Arlington Renegades and the Birmingham Stallions on March 30, running back Lennie Brown caught a pass and ran down one sideline before being forced out of bounds near the first-down line. Officials spotted the ball too close to the first down line to determine if it was first down. So they stopped play, and a TruLine Technology graphic showed that the ball spot was five inches short of the line to gain.

In total, the review took around 45 seconds, which is the speed and accuracy the NFL hopes to implement on Sundays as early as this season.

"As soon as it's spotted and the position is automatically garnered, that's fed back to the officiating center and a virtual replay can be put out to the TV either confirming [it's a first down] or stating that actually they haven't quite made it," James Japhet, Bolt6's chief commercial officer, told ESPN. "That feed of the virtual replay will go to the broadcast as well as the big screen in the stadium, so that kind caters for the fans getting the answer, but the raw data is spat straight to the officiating center so the officials are aware and can inform the on-field officials without the need for replay."

While tracking technology has made significant progress over the years, the margin of error for what has been developed is still too great to use to automatically spot the ball. Officials will still be responsible for determining where to spot it.

Take Zebra Technologies, for example. The company is the official "real time location solutions provider" of the NFL and its data has allowed for significant leaps in advanced analytics through NFL's Next Gen Stats. That data is made possible by a chip inside the football and a radio frequency identification (RFID) system that requires anywhere from 20 to 30 receivers inside the stadium.

Zebra is able to accurately track the ball to within six inches of its precise location. It's an impressive feat -- especially considering some similar GPS-based systems are accurate to within three feet -- but to satisfactorily determine a first down, six inches isn't good enough.

"You want to use technology as much as you can, but you always obviously want to make sure if you're using technology, you're getting that 100 percent, no doubt answer," said Dominic Russo, supervisor of client services for Zebra Sports.

The optical tracking system from Hawk-Eye the NFL began testing at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas in 2023 -- and plans to continue testing during the preseason -- isn't meant to determine if a play was truly a first down, only to replace the antiquated use of the physical chains.

There could come a time where technology advances to a point where officials aren't left to spot the ball to the best of their abilities, but the challenges are significant.

"People always say why don't they just put a chip in the ball [to automate first downs]," Russo said. "Well, there's a lot more involved in it. When the guy is holding the football and it's tucked in, the RFID receivers don't always have a good line of sight to the football. If there's a big mass of people, that causes problems. ... We don't have the technology to know at the exact moment a player is down where the chip is.

"There are just so many different factors and it seems really simple on the surface, you would think that it would be easy, but there's just so many different factors and trying to make that 100 percent correct call in real time."

The many different elements and risks associated with altering the chain system is why the NFL has watched as other leagues have made changes to rules and technology before implementing some of its own.

The chain crews may be around the NFL for hundreds of years as a visual aid for those in the stadium, but with optimal tracking, Steratore and officials everywhere can retire their index cards.

Is the 'chain gang' obsolete? Why embracing technology won't solve everything (2024)
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