eli5: how do American football referees know where a punt goes out of bounds while the ball is in the air, watching from standing on the field?

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A referee can see the ball goes out of bounds, then jogs along the sidelines to call where the ball should be placed. From the view on the field however, from any angle, one referee couldn’t really tell where it went out while the ball is in the air. There is never a break or replay look, so do they just get as close as they can?

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There’s a side judge and a line judge and they both basically guess where it goes out. Sometimes you’ll see a ref throwing a hat too

A professional officiating crew consists of 7 members, all with different responsibility pre- and post-snap. On punts there are 4 that could help make the spot:

There are 2 officials that monitor the line of scrimmage on either sideline (the line judge and down judge). So they are basically in-line with the ball when it’s snapped but on the edges.

There also 2 officials that are stationed on either sideline but positioned 20-30 yards downfield (side judge and field judge). On punts they’ll be even deeper, more in-line with the returner.

So when a punt goes out of bounds, those deep officials have a much better view. It’s actually fun when the punter shanks one because the cameraman may focus on these officials as they walk up to spot the ball, and everyone is wondering when they will stop (like the mountain climber game in “Price is Right” if you’re familiar).

There’s going to be some guesswork with those, it’s not going to be perfect, but usually the deep officials and the line of scrimmage officials meet near the same spot.

Pretty much all refereeing in the NFL is eyeballing and guesswork. The sport has resisted any kind of technology in these decisions, for better or worse.

The ones jogging along the sidelines aren’t the ones who know where it went out. As you correctly guessed, they don’t have the right angle to see it.

The one who actually sees where it went out is the Head Referee, the guy with the white hat standing behind the punter. He has the perfect angle to see where it went out.

It doesn’t get shown on TV very often, but if you look closely you’ll see that the Side Judge or Down Judge jogging along the sideline will be holding his hand high in the air. This is his signal to the Head Ref to say “I couldn’t see where it went out, tell me when to stop.” The Head Ref will then wait until the guy gets to the right point along the sideline, and he’ll signal with an overhead chopping motion to tell him to stop. That’s where the ball gets spotted.