After more than a week of radio silence, football fans finally heard NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s views on the now-infamous “no-call” in the NFC Championship Game.
Goodell spoke with the media Wednesday afternoon at his traditional pre-Super Bowl “State of the League” address; and, no surprises here, if you’re polling New Orleans Saints fans, they’ll tell you they’re still frustrated with the “State of the League.”
Of little consolation is the fact Goodell told reporters that he and the league “understand the frustration [fans] feel right now.” He also pledged to reevaluate instant replay during the off-season, but seemed skeptical that any replay revamp would be expanded to penalties like pass interference.
More disappointing to optimistic Saints fans, Goodell did not choose to invoke the recently cited Rule 17, which gives the Commissioner authority to “investigate and take appropriate…corrective measures if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which the Commissioner deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.” (You can read all of Rule 17 here).
Replaying any portion of the game was never an option for the League. We got our first proof of this in a reply brief filed by the NFL in response to a lawsuit commenced by “bereft” Saints fans. The brief acknowledges that referees are humans, but states that decisions made by the officials on the field are final, and Rule 17 should not be read as allowing the commissioner to overturn the result of a game. Goodell parroted those sentiments in his press conference today, telling reporters “[t]he Commissioner will not apply authority in cases of complaints by clubs concerning judgmental errors or routine errors of omission by game officials.”
As Mike Florio of Profootballtalk.com pointed out, Goodell’s conservative take on Rule 17 could be because the Commissioner has as eye out for litigation. And for good reason. Ordering a replay is uncharted territory for the NFL and has the possibility to open a huge can of worms for the league. As a private association (rather than a state actor), the NFL is essentially free to do as it pleases under the law, provided it does not violate its own rules, act fraudulently or illegally, or act in an arbitrary or capricious manner.
Goodell (and the league as a whole) has gotten into trouble for pushing these boundaries before—especially in the face of public outcry. Remember Ray Rice? In 2014, Goodell bowed to public opinion and suspended the former Raven indefinitely after video of Rice assaulting his now-wife went public. Rice’s suspension was eventually overturned by a neutral arbitrator who deemed the punishment inconsistent with NFL practices. Transpose this need to be fair and consistent to deciding whether or not to replay a game and you have a mess. Is a missed holding call that leads to a game-sealing first down “extraordinary” enough to trigger a Rule 17? Should a Week 3 game be treated differently than a Week 16 game?
All this said, Goodell needed to finally say something about the no-call controversy. As the brief responding to the Saints fans’ lawsuit points out: “NFL games are played according to a uniform set of playing rules, agreed to and established by a vote of all of the NFL’s teams.” Yes, the NFL is a league of rules. Rules govern how the game is played, what players can wear during games, how teams can acquire players, even how players should act off the field. When a league rule or policy comes into question, it is a big deal. And when one of those rules impacts fairness and competitive balance, it’s an even bigger deal. Players and League officials are subjected to bodily invasion to ensure fairness on the field (See the League’s drug testing policies).
One of the essential jobs of the commissioner is to protect the integrity of the league and preserve the public’s trust in the game. The Commissioner is given broad power under Article 46 of the CBA to impose discipline on players for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football[.]”
There’s no question that the “no-call” controversy has, once again, poked holes in the public’s confidence in the league. And it could not have come at a worse time. Not only did the play occur during one of the most important and high-profile games of the season, it’s also dominating the conversation during the lead-up to the Super Bowl. This is a time where Goodell and the league should be patting themselves on the back: the relocated Rams (in enormous-market L.A.) are playing for a championship in a state-of-the-art stadium that reflects wealth and prosperity of the league. Instead, however, the NFL is facing questions about a fundamental part of its game: fair competition. And while the answers Goodell provided today offer little relief to sad Saints fans, they could have a long-term impact on both Goodell’s future and the integrity of the league.
Photo Courtesy: John Bazemore/AP