Opening Statements

10 Questions: Omaha lawyer spends Sundays as NFL official

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Clete Blakeman. Photo courtesy of Clete Blakeman.

Every fall, plenty of lawyers have an opinion about football. The difference is that Clete Blakeman’s opinion matters.

That’s because Blakeman delivers his decisions straight from the field in his role as a professional football official for the NFL. During the week, Blakeman represents plaintiffs in personal injury and wrongful death cases as a partner at Carlson & Burnett in Omaha, Nebraska. On football-season Sundays, however, he leads an officiating crew of seven as they call games that range from preseason openers to the Super Bowl.

A former college player—he was backup quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the ‘80s—Blakeman started refereeing during law school and never stopped. Now, about 30 years later, he’s on top of his game, approaching his positions in the legal field and on the playing field with equal passion and precision.

Q. How do you manage these two very demanding roles?

A. They blend together really well. My weekdays are the law, and weekends—from July through the end of February—are all about football. Usually, I know my schedule of where I will be, football-wise, a month in advance, but I just have to be flexible. I take it week to week and day to day.

Q. Have you ever had scheduling issues?

A. There have been times when I’ve had conflicts that have arisen from late game assignments or travel—I am trying to get home from Pittsburgh on a Sunday night, and I have depositions scheduled on Monday morning. In situations like that, other lawyers and judges have been very accommodating. People ask, “How do you do it?” and I say, “I have a lot of help. Help from other lawyers, judges and people who realize what I do and what it takes to do what I do.”

Q. Did you always want to rise up the referee ladder to the NFL?

A. Yes. It’s just a passion. I’d be officiating in high school, but I’d see college games and think, “That would be cool—what do I have to do to get there?” I spent seven years in the Big 12 [Conference]. Then I started looking at NFL games on Sunday and thought, “Is it possible to get to that level?” You just start setting internal goals. “How good can I get? How far can I go from where I am?”

Q. You’ve been called a referee who listens rather than dictates. Listening to your clients also is critical in law. Is listening a skill that you’ve consciously developed?

A. I don’t know if it was a conscious effort; it just kind of developed over the years. I do think listening is an undervalued component of communication. I don’t have all the answers, so I try to take everything in—whether it’s with my clients, judges or my crew on Sundays. To me, it’s part of respecting the person you’re communicating with: I’ll listen to you; I’ll hear what you’re saying; and I expect the same thing—that you’ll respect what I am saying. It’s an evaluation process.

Q. But you still have to make fast decisions, right?

A. Yes, you’d be surprised at how quickly everything happens on the field. I may be making five, 10, 15 decisions in a couple of seconds: Holding? Not holding? Did he grab the mask? Did he not grab the mask? It all happens; boom, boom, boom. It’s similar to a trial setting—you’ve got to be at the edge of your seat, listening and concentrating. If you miss something, it could be the most important thing that happens at trial.

Q. How has social media affected you as a referee?

A. Social media has changed what we do dramatically. I try to stay away from reading social media stuff. It’s just gotten out of hand in many ways. For example, if someone’s team loses on Sunday, the fans have the means to find me. Inevitably, I’ll have voicemails and emails waiting for me at work on Monday.

Q. How do you deal with that?

A. I’ve gotten beyond the point of taking it personally. They’re literally just venting at my striped shirt and white hat.

Q. Do you ever find yourself second-guessing a call?

A. Yes. Those situations always stick with me—I tend to remember them more vividly than when I have a success. It’s just human nature. You try to be on your game from week to week to week, but if something happens and it doesn’t play out right, you take it personally and you take it hard, but you try to learn from it. Again, it correlates to my law practice. There are things I learn from one case that I can apply to another case or something that happened 15 years ago in a case that I can now apply to this case to avoid a pitfall. It’s a constant rolling process.

Q. I have to ask about Twitter and Super Bowl 50 in 2016. So many people tweeted screenshots of you with the hashtag #HotRef that it went viral—so viral that you were all over the news and even made an appearance on the Today show. What was that like?

A. It definitely took me by surprise. I had no idea until after the game in the locker room. It was incredibly interesting to see the power of social media and to be part of it. But whenever there’s something positive that comes out of mass media—say, the game was well-officiated, you look the part, you look like you belong there and are in charge—it reflects well on the world of officiating, not just for football but for all sports. Those comments are rare but welcomed.

Q. Will you be officiating Super Bowl 51?

A. No. You can’t work back-to-back Super Bowls. Every week, we’re tasked with bringing our A-game to every game—they’re all important. Working the Super Bowl can’t be your only goal for the season.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Game On: During football season, this Omaha lawyer spends Sundays as an official for the NFL."

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