The Integrity Of The Games

By now, you must have heard about and seen the replays of the highly controversial calls made and not made by the officials in the Packers/Lions game on Monday night.  I do not care to rehash the purported importance of those calls on the outcome of the game; those sorts of issues have been litigated to death on sports radio and on the talking-head TV shows.  I want to go in a slightly different direction with this issue.

  • The NFL is flirting with a situation where people can begin to doubt the integrity of the games on the field.

I am not accusing anyone in the league offices or any of the officials in Monday’s game of any nefarious behavior(s), but we should acknowledge that we live in society that does more than tolerate conspiracy theories.  And the NFL can allow creative thinkers to cast some conspiracy nets very broadly these days.

Ironically, the last time a Monday game ended with such an influence from the officials was the infamous “Replacement Refs Game” and the Packers were in that game too but came out as the “victims” of the bad call instead of the being the “beneficiaries” of the bad calls.  The problem is not who benefits from or who loses as a result of the actions; it is the atmosphere around the actions.

The league has to make decisions which may benefit one team or not.  The NFL suspended Tom Brady for 4 games a few years ago; that “hurt” the Pats and “helped” their 4 opponents in those games.  That sort of thing is unavoidable.  What the NFL should not allow to happen is for its officials to be seen as bumbling fools as is the case in the WWE.  Thousands of people in the stadium see what happened on the field and then see the replays; millions at home also see this; the officials saw it in real time and then see it in super slow motion on replay.  After all of that, the officials don’t see what everyone else sees.  [Aside:  That is a standard “script” for a lot of rassling matches where the “bad guy” has a “foreign object” hidden in his trunks or is slipped a “foreign object” by an outside assistant.  Everyone sees it and recognizes it – – except the referee.]

The popularity of NFL football in the US has several pillars holding it in place; one of those pillars is that millions of people wager millions of dollars on NFL games meaning that those millions of people:

  • Care about the outcome of the games
  • Care about the honesty of the processes that lead to the outcome of the games

That “caring” must not be abused lest those people stop wagering on NFL games which will weaken an important pillar of NFL popularity.  The revenue streams for the NFL and the franchise values for the teams cannot be maintained if too many people stop betting on the games.  Gambling is not the sole reason for NFL popularity, but it is a critical one.

I drew a comparison to professional wrestling above.  Let me continue with it for a moment.  Lots of people watch pro wrestling – but gambling on pro wrestling is minuscule.  People watch it to see the unfolding of a soap opera style plot along with plenty of athleticism and acrobatics.  Maybe the NFL could morph into something akin to that which would hold a fanbase’s interest, but I cannot imagine that it would be able to maintain the numbers it now enjoys.  Ergo, there is ditch along the side of the road on which the NFL is traveling and the vehicle careening down that road is edging its way toward that ditch.

During the Monday night game, former Lions’ star, Barry Sanders, Tweeted that the NFL

“… needs to look at a way to prevent that [blundered calls] from happening.”

It would be hard to argue that Sanders is wrong there.  The problem is that if the root cause of the bad calls is human error, then there is no way to prevent “that” from happening.  What the league needs to do is to try to repair any other aspects of the game that allow “that” to happen.

Part of the problem is technology and replay.  Technology allows millions of fans to have a reason to question – maybe even doubt – the competence of the officials on the field.  If they can question a set of officials enough times, then they can cross into a space where they begin to wonder if those officials might be failing to make proper decisions on the field for some reason that is not generally known.  When instant replay became feasible, the NFL adopted it as part of the game with the stated intent of

  • Getting it right.

Hey, if I were in the position of explaining why this new tool was being added to the game, I would surely use that as a justification.  I would never tout this new tool as something that would enable the officials to “get it wrong”.  Channeling Hamlet here:

“Aye, there’s the rub…”

Far too often, replay lets lots of fans see that the call on the field was wrong, but it will stand as called (wrong) for some reason that the official never explains.  That can be fertile soil to sprout some conspiracy theories.  If any of those sorts of things begin to fix themselves in the minds of fans, the slogan “On any given Sunday …” can take on an entirely new meaning on an orthogonal axis to where the league wants to go.

For the record, I am not advocating the removal of instant replay.  The toothpaste is out of the tube on that one and it is not going back in.  However, the league need not expand its purview any wider than it is now until and unless they come up with an efficient and effective way to make changes when those changes are obviously necessary.

Oh, but there is more to the “integrity of the game” issue in 2019.  Every year, there is a team in the league that is the doormat.  The NFL – knowing that competitive balance is a good thing for the league – seeks to assist that team’s efforts to become more competitive/competent through the NFL Draft.  I have argued before that the Draft may not be as great a tool for “leveling the playing field” as it is made out to be, but the intent behind the draft is noble indeed.  This year, there are a handful of “bad teams”; with almost 40% of the season in the rear-view mirror, there are two teams that have not won a game yet and three others with only one win to their credit.  [Aside: The Skins have only 1 win this year and it came at the expense of the Dolphins who have not won any games so far this year.]

And since I just mentioned the Dolphins, let me say that they are an assault on the integrity of the game for the NFL.  The NFL Draft is supposed to “alleviate the suffering” for the worst teams in the league in each season; the NFL Draft is not supposed to be a reward for winning the race to the bottom.  The Miami Dolphins in 2019 are an inept bunch – but their ineptitude feels different.  They give every indication that they are trying to lose so that they can rebuild via the draft.  That is what the Sixers did in the NBA over about a 4-year period of tanking; that surely seems to be what the Dolphins are doing now in the NFL as they have traded away their good players for future draft picks and put a mighty inferior product on the field for games this year.

Tanking in pro football – or basketball or baseball – does not protect the integrity of the game.  Intending to lose – and/or losing intentionally – is what happens in professional wrestling where few if any people identify “integrity of the game” as a vital element of the competition.  If you look at the Dolphins season in 2019, they do not seem to be trying very hard to win games.  Their first four losses were by margins of 49 points, 43 points, 25 points and 20 points.  If you look at that sequence and see it as “progress”, then you are like the little kid who is in a room up to his neck in horseshit and goes digging around in the muck to find the pony that has to be there somewhere.

In the last 10 years or so, the NFL has seen some monumentally bad teams play out a season.  However, the Lions under Rod Marinelli played to win games; they were just not good enough to do so and went 0-16.  The Browns under Hue Jackson had a pair of seasons with a cumulative record of 1-31, but they tried to win games.  The 2019 Dolphins need to do a better job of looking like they want to win a game or two.  Any objective look at their roster will tell an observer that this team is not capable of ‘breaking even” for the season – but losing their 5 games to date by an average of 27.6 points per game hints at a less than robust effort to build a competitive roster for the year.

The NFL is still the 800-lb gorilla for sports in the US and it is going to remain in that position for a long time – – unless it shoots itself in the foot.  Giving fans even a spark of a reason to question the integrity of their games is the figurative equivalent of the league not only shooting itself in the foot but also taking careful aim to assure that the bullet does the most damage possible to the bones and tendons in the foot.

Finally, since today’s rant is about football – with occasional nods toward professional wrestling – let me turn to The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm for definitions of those activities:

Football:  An American sport in which men try to get a teardrop-shaped ball from one end of a big field to another while grunting, piling on top of one another, and giddily jumping up and down when they succeed.  Homoerotic? You decide.

And …

Wrestling:  Boxing with hair.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



2 thoughts on “The Integrity Of The Games”

  1. I think I agree with almost everything in your rant. But, absent any evidence of intentional gaming of the results, officials are out there busting ass to do the best job they can. A better question for the NFL is whether the officials are properly trained and compensated such that the best officiating talent is being deployed.

    Also, please do not put another replay official to work calling penalties from the booth.

    1. Doug:

      I agree that NFL officials are not dogging it on the field nor are they “on the take”. My point is that if anyone out there is inclined to think that way, that person can concoct a rationale to support such thinking.

      NFL officials are properly trained, thoroughly evaluated and well-compensated. You don’t want an additional official to call penalties from the booth; OK, I agree with you there. Here is something else I don’t want. I don’t want the NFL to hire all of its officials on a full-time basis.

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