The NFL faces a number of significant challenges, including making players safer from concussions, facing the wrath of former players suing the league for inadequate care during their playing days and the usual and random player suspensions for drug abuse.
As serious as those issues are and will continue to be, they mostly live on the periphery of the playing field. The ‘integrity of the game’ seems intact, or did until the crisis caused by last night’s Green Bay-Seattle game.
You’ve probably seen the replays, but officials filling in for the professional referees prevented from working while a labor dispute with the league festers, blew the game-winning call. Dozens of NFL observers in the media in recent weeks predicted this exact scenario. The league continues to play hardball with its top-tier referees, meaning replacement refs, most of whom worked lower-level college games, are doing the best they can.
But in last night’s Monday Night Football game, the one weekly game a national audience watches, they blew the call and Seattle stole a game Green Bay should have in the win column.
This picture tells the story. Two refs standing over the Seattle receiver and Green Bay defender wrestling for the ball issue opposite signals — one proclaiming a touchdown, the other, left, signalling time out, interception or incompletion, game over. The replay seems to show the Green Bay player coming down with the ball, only to have it stolen by the Seattle receiver after they were on the ground and the play should have ended.
No doubt these refs are doing the best they can. Calls need to be made instantly during fast-moving and confusing plays executed by enormous men trying to confuse people on the field. And no one can say that the professional refs would make the correct call either. But the odds are they would have, and thus there’s the crisis for the NFL. Fans are furious.
Social media is aflame this morning with fans pledging not to watch another game this season called by the replacement refs — not likely, but still indicative of the fix in which NFL leaders find themselves. The NFL apparently wants to keep a lid on the cost of paying the elite refs, even though they would still remain part-time employees. The NFL could likely recoup the cost of a new refs’ contract by charging a dollar more for every jersey sold.
In a league with revenues in the billions, that seems a little miserly. And now the replacements cost a perennial playoff team a win, one that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not, or having home-field [‘the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field’] advantage for the playoffs.
Would any other league or sport reach down into the lower college ranks for referees to work the highest levels of their sport? Can you see a FIFA World Cup game called by a college ref? Or would Wimbledon put college linespeople in charge? Would Major League Baseball put in a call to Williamsport for Little League umpires to jump into the World Series?
The pressures on professional, experienced refs is immense and they’re more used to dealing with it. As competent as these college refs are — and let’s acknowledge they have gotten the vast majority of the calls correct — they just aren’t trained to the same level as the top-flight refs, where speed, positioning, anticipation and viewpoint are crucial.
Just as NFL mandarins would laugh if someone proposed sending Alabama, Oregon or Florida State against an NFL team, the game’s guardians must realize that the college refs don’t belong on the professional field.
The NFL needs to step in and settle this labor dispute and end its crisis. The league should also acknowledge the failings publicly and apologize to fans for last night’s fiasco.
A bad call here and there in the course of a game is regrettable. Getting the call wrong, and failing to correct it after a booth review, on the last play of the game so the wrong team is rewarded with the win dissolves the game’s integrity and the NFL’s reputation withers.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.