Roger Goodell ascended to the position of NFL commissioner because, from the day he started at the league as an intern, no one was more zealous about “protecting the shield” – marketing jargon for making the NFL logo a symbol of integrity, gripping entertainment, and success. That’s why, upon being named commissioner in 2006, he took a hard line against player misconduct. That’s why, as the medical science revealed that the NFL’s relative ambivalence towards concussions was, at best, misguided and at worst, fraudulent – as the more than 2,000 ex-players suing the league are arguing – Goodell has taken important steps to improve player safety.
And that’s why Goodell’s ongoing lockout of the NFL’s officials, which has allowed the replacement refs to embarrass the game, is so mystifying. He’s not protecting the shield. He’s smashing it with a battle-ax.
In a nightmare scenario for the NFL, the referees have saved their worst performances for prime time. Monday night’s disaster has to be enough, right? On the last play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, with his team trailing 12-7, fired a Hail Mary into the end zone. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate pushed Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields, an obvious pass interference that should have ended the game. No call on that one.
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Tate leapt for the ball with four other Packers. But Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings grabbed it first. It looked, and felt, like an interception. As everyone fell to the ground, however, Tate clutched the ball too. After a few seconds of scrumming, two officials ran over to the pile, glanced at each other, and took a stab: one guy held up the sign for a touchback, ruling it an interception. The other guy held up his arms: touchdown.
They were Abbott and Costello in stripes. Who’s on first? Of course, the cameras caught the confusion. The image of the two refs, offering two different conclusions to a crucial play, between two NFC contenders, on Monday Night Football, could define this 2012 season.
Since the touchdown signal is much more familiar – who hasn’t raised their arms in the backyard after throwing two-hand-touch score? — and the game was in Seattle, the crowd roared. The Seahawks started celebrating. The touchdown, it seems, would prevail.
Then came more confusion. “You can’t go to replay to determine who caught the ball,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico said. So the ruling on the field would stand. Yet, the play was reviewed on instant replay. After even more delay, the ref confirmed the call, sending the Seattle crowd into more joyous hysterics. The game finally ended, 10 minutes after the disputed catch, when, in an another bizarre scene, players were called back onto the field to kick the extra point. Final score: Seattle 14, Green Bay 12. Some $250 million in gambling money may have changed hands because of the controversial call.
On Tuesday, the NFL released a statement saying that, indeed, the ruling of a “simultaneous catch” is reviewable by instant replay, when it occurs in the end zone. If two players catch a throw at the same time, the offense gets to keep it: tie goes to the receiver, so to speak. That was the on-field ruling, and why Tate was awarded the touchdown.
However, the rulebook states, “It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.” That’s what appeared to happen here. When you watch the replay, Jennings, the defensive player, grasped it first. But the according to its statement, replacement ref Wayne Elliott ruled that no “indisputable video evidence existed to overturn the call on the field.” The NFL says it “supports the decision.”
(MORE: Monday Night Football Official Statement: Refs Right In Reception Decision, Blew Pass Interference Call)
Hmmm. Well, even the NFL admitted that the refs screwed up by not calling the Tate’s pass interference. And whether or not the replay was too close to overturn may, in the end, prove irrelevant. The picture of the different hand signals, already splashed all over America and beyond, may do more lasting damage.
After the disaster, players and fans raged on Twitter. “I love this league and love the game of football,” wrote New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, “but tonight’s debacle hurts me greatly. This is NOT the league we’re supposed to represent.” The Packers, of course, were pissed. “Embarrassing. Thanks nfl,” wrote Green Bay offensive lineman T.J. Lang. “F— it NFL. Fine me and use the money to go play the regular refs.”
“Godspeed, Ed Hochuli,” Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster, referring to the regular ref with bulging biceps who calls many high-profile games. Usually, Hochuli gets social media flack for his winded explanation of the rules. Now, every NFL player, coach, and fan is ready to bring him back on a chariot.
Throughout the preseason, and in the first three weeks of the regular season, the incompetence of the officiating was building to this flashpoint. On the Sunday night game this week, between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, the ref’s huddles were longer, the confusion evident, the penalties stranger. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, for example, was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game, though he claimed to just be calling a timeout. The NFL has asked its players and coaches to show the replacements more respect. But frustration is boiling over. After Baltimore kicked the last-second, game-winning field goal, which sailed just above the uprights, barely, Pats coach Bill Belichick grabbed an official as he was running off the field, looking for an explanation. That move will earn him a fine, if not a suspension. Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan chased a ref down a hallway after his team lost on Sunday. In a particularly ugly moment, Pittsburgh’s Larry Foote said to the officials “you should go kill yourselves” after his team lost to Oakland.
The NFL is losing control. While flipping through the games the last few weeks, the fights stand out. More players are pushing and shoving after plays. That’s only natural if no one respects the cops. Here, the referee lockout reeks of hypocrisy. Goodell and the league say they’re all about player safety. Yet, the games keep getting more heated every week. Even injuries can’t be directly attributable to the refs – yet. Morally, how can the league take any more risk?
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A moment of fairness here: these replacements deserve some credit, because under impossible scrutiny, they’ve gotten many, if not most, calls correct. But all the errors tarnish the NFL’s reputation. And they should, because the regulars will always be more likely to get things right. The NFL can say the officiating is adequate, and point out that regular refs make stupid mistakes too. That’s true. Would the regulars, for instance, have botched last night’s call? Maybe. But by default, we get to assume that they wouldn’t. We get to assume that they wouldn’t spot the ball in mysterious places, like some replacements have, or lengthen the games with all their conversations. Because the Ed Hochulis have been there before. They have the proper training, and experience.
The NFL can no longer convince anyone that it’s not all that bad. We know what we’ve seen. For coaches and players, complaining about the refs is standard. But can all the coaches and players ripping these officials be wrong?
So what now? Quite simply, the NFL needs to give in. Roger Goodell isn’t used to losing negotiations. But he’ll be a better, and more respected, commissioner if he admits he was wrong on this one. He’ll have an even better product. At this point, the main economic sticking point seems to be the retirement benefit for the refs. The NFL wants to put their nest egg in a 401(k). The refs want to keep their traditional pension plans. “About 10 percent of the country has that,” Goodell told Politico in early September, talking about pensions. “Yours truly doesn’t have that.” Just because most American workers have been forced into risky 401(k)s, however, doesn’t make it right. And it’s much easier for Goodell – who makes a reported $10 million a year now, and whose salary will double by the end of his contract in 2019 – to withstand the tremors of the markets than it is for most workers, even refs — who, according to the NFL, make an average of $149,000 a year for part-time work.
The NFL, whose annual revenues are approaching $10 billion, can afford pensions. Or can come up with a compromise. If it costs the league more money than it wanted to part with, well, tough luck. Such is the cost of this comedy of errors.