A Vision for Success: Alum achieves dream of being an NFL referee

Bryan Neale NFL referee
Bryan Neale, BS’92, enjoys training work teams about the similarities of elite performance in sales and football. Courtesy Photo.

“Blind zebra” is one of the tamer terms irate football fans have shouted at NFL referee Bryan Neale, BS’92, but it’s a label he’s embraced.

When he’s not blowing his whistle and throwing flags on Sunday afternoons, Neale spends 50 to 60 hours a week working on his other career as a sales trainer, consultant, and speaker. He’s the owner/operator of Indianapolis-based Blind Zebra Consulting, which helps clients in Indianapolis; South Bend, Ind.; and Columbus, Ohio, achieve elite performance through improved decision-making processes and other strategies for success.

“It takes a lot of skill and process, and some art, to be able to live in those two worlds—sales and football,” Neale says. “There are a lot of parallels.”

Neale, who hails from Newburgh, Ind., says he set a goal of becoming an NFL referee during his freshman year at IU. He labored for some 25 years at lower levels of the sport before getting his big break in the 2014–15 season. Earlier this year, he worked his first NFL playoff game: the divisional round matchup between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I never, ever considered giving up on my dream, even though I never, ever thought it was guaranteed,” says Neale, who worked in sales for Procter & Gamble after graduating from IU. “The thought was always present in my mind that somehow, some way, I was going to make it, and I got very lucky and worked hard and got there.”

When asked to name his favorite football team, Neale predictably demurs. “I root for me,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, the real answer is that I root for the Indiana Hoosiers. I couldn’t say that when I was working in the Big Ten.”

Neale says it’s easy for him and his fellow refs to shrug off angry insults and boos.

“First of all, you’re always harder on yourself than the fans, the players, or the coaches could ever be. We’re extremely hard on ourselves, and we expect really high performance. It’s not the kind of business where we get done with a game and say, ‘Boy, we really nailed that one, didn’t we?’ That never occurs.”

Under Pressure? Decision-Making Tips from an NFL Ref

Have a process for decision making

Trust each element:

  1. What you see—what’s right in front you;
  2. What you perceive—your peripheral vision; and
  3. What you feel—your gut instinct.

When you put those things in order in a process, and think about them consciously, you always make better decisions than when you pick just one and forget that all three are in play.

We have a little saying

Let your mind digest what your eyes have seen. As NFL officials, we try to slow things down in our brains. We’ll see something, but then our brain will process it a step slower. That really helps the decision-making process. People are so quick to jump to decisions and think they have to decide something right away, and sometimes it’s OK to pause.

If you’re going to be wrong, then be wrong strong

That means if you are going to make a decision after all of that processing, then make a decision. Don’t waffle; don’t stay on the fence.


This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine.

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Written By
Brian Hartz
Brian Hartz, MA’01, is a freelance journalist based in St. Petersburg, Fla. He also writes for the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, The Gabber (Gulfport, Fla.) newspaper, Crain’s Tampa Bay business magazine, The Limestone Post, and the Business Observer (Sarasota, Fla.) newspaper, among others.