Controversy and Integrity in the NFL

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If you are here, reading this post, it might be because you are a fan of the NFL and read blogs about football. But more likely than not, you are here either because you are a) a friend who came over from the main site (thanks, guys!) or b) someone who is trying to learn more about football to make life bearable for the next 4 months.

To those of you in the latter group, let me assure you of something right from the get-go: What you have witnessed in the past 3 weeks IS NOT FOOTBALL. It’s a power struggle between the NFL owners and the NFL referees over a few million dollars – which is basically pocket change for a multi-billion dollar industry – being played out publicly and to the detriment of the players, the fans, and the game itself.

That being said, let’s try to learn something from this situation, both about the game and about life.

Before we begin, a disclaimer: I am not an objective voice to speak on this issue. The Packers are one of my greatest joys in life; I’m an unrelenting and irrational fan. As such, I am biased. I do not have a valid perspective on this issue.

But I do have eyes. And this is what my eyes saw last night:

1. M.D. Jennings, the Packers player who jumped highest, intercepted the ball in the endzone.

2. General pandemonium erupted on the field.

Let’s tackle the first issue first.

From a game-play perspective, let’s review what happened:

1. Golden Tate, 81, pushes off on Sam Shields, 37, before jumping up to try and catch the ball. That’s an Offensive Pass Interference penalty which should have rendered the play null and void. That penalty was not called. Mistake #1. (And let’s not even talk about the phantom Roughing the Passer penalty that put the Seahawks in position to take that shot at the endzone in the first place, or the also-phantom Defensive Pass Interference penalty on the other Packers interception a few plays prior.)

2. When M.D. Jennings, 43, and Golden Tate, 81, came down with the ball, one ref ruled it a touchdown and one ref made the call to stop the clock. The ref who ran to the endzone, looked at the pile, and ruled the “catch” a touchdown had the power to overrule the ref who ruled to stop the clock to review the play. Therefore, he should have taken the time to conference with the other officials before making his overarching decision. Mistake #2.

3. (This is important to know!) The play was reviewed by the replay official because all scoring plays inside the final 2 minutes of the game are reviewed. But, by rule, the ruling of a touchdown call can’t be overturned and ruled as an interception. As soon as the play was called a touchdown, the only “reviewable” action was whether or not the ball hit the ground/was controlled by the receiver. The replay official cannot determine possession. Because Golden Tate/M.D. Jennings did have control of the ball, the ruling on the field stood. The replacement ref making the touchdown call was the one who made the egregious error, not the official in the booth reviewing the play.

As we break this down from a football perspective, it’s an example of a bad call at the end of an entire game’s worth of bad calls. Clearly, I’m upset as a Packers fan. When you only play 16 games a season, every game counts. The Packers should be 2-1 right now.

However, bad calls are made in every game of every season by every referee – regular or replacement. It’s part of playing sports.

So let’s move on to the second aspect of the video: general pandemonium erupting on the field. And let’s take a life lesson from that: it’s never a good idea to make a decision in the midst of indecision.

The officials are clearly indecisive about which way the call should go. When you are in over your head, when you feel unprecedented scrutiny, when the fate of hardworking players and coaches and the sanity of diehard fans rests on your call…it’s not a good time to make a snap judgement. It would have been best to take a minute to back away from the action, talk to the other refs who had a better perspective on the play, and make a well-educated decision about the situation. That’s a lesson we can all apply to our own lives in one way or another.

But let’s go even further and step outside of this play in this game. Because even though it’s the worst error of the Replacement Ref Era of 2012, it’s far from the only error. This has been going on all season. And unfortunately, I think it speaks to the uglier side of the NFL, the side in which money and power are more important than the actual game of football.

I feel disheartened as a fan of the NFL. For an organization that has been so concerned with “player safety” and the “integrity of the game,” this screams hypocrisy. If you’ll allow untrained, inexperienced referees to officiate ineffectively – not for a game, not for a week – but for 3 whole weeks during which there have been constant and glaring deficiencies, none more glaring than last night, I don’t think you are actually concerned with player safety and integrity of the game.

To make matters worse, the NFL just issued a statement concerning last night’s outcome…supporting the outcome. They are effectively telling a bold-faced lie in an effort to save any remaining credibility. I can’t talk about it rationally right now because it makes my blood boil. It makes me feel like I’m living under a dictatorship in which I’m being fed falsehoods and expected to blindly support them for the good of the country.

But here’s the thing: you can’t establish credibility by promoting dishonesty and a lack of responsibility. To restore any semblance of validity to the organization, the NFL needed to man up and admit fault. What they did, instead, was further prove their lack of respect for the game and for the intelligence of those who participate – whether as a team member or a fan.

SI’s Peter King called last night, “one of the great disgraces in NFL history.” Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel rightly observed, “The game is a sideshow. The brilliant performances are an afterthought. The credibility is in question.” And Grantland’s Bill Barnwell hit the nail right on the head:

I recently read an argument suggesting that the replacement refs don’t really matter in the big picture. The evidence is that NFL ratings are still sky-high, which suggests that the fans who complain that poor refereeing is “ruining” the game are still watching. And it’s true, maybe they are still watching. But as the season goes along, if the games continue to produce terrifyingly false endings like Packers-Seahawks, I’m pretty sure that’s going to change. The easiest way to get people to stop watching is to make them think that the games they’re watching are illegitimate and irrelevant. With the continued employment of replacement referees, that is the exact path the NFL’s games are on. 

Sadly, that’s where we are right now. It’s hard to endorse a corrupt product. The outcomes of the games feel meaningless. The “just” nature of pure competition feels violated. It’s a tough pill to swallow for anyone who devotes time, money, energy, or enthusiasm to professional football.  And you’d be hard-pressed to find many people in this country who don’t devote some measure of time, money, energy or enthusiasm to professional football.

To close: much-needed perspective from Coach Lombardi:

After all the cheers have died down and the stadium is empty, after the headlines have been written, and after you are back in the quiet of your room and the championship ring has been placed on the dresser and after all the pomp and fanfare have faded, the enduring thing that is left is the dedication to doing with our lives the very best we can to make the world a better place in which to live.

Let’s remember what’s truly important. Let’s not allow ourselves to become cynical, but instead use this as a catalyst to lead by example and do with our lives the very best that we can. And please, let’s choose to encourage those within the organization who are exemplifying strength of character and true class rather than harshly demean those who are caught up in corruption.

There are good people who play football, even if the business behind the sport is not currently good.