The NFL's Bureaucratic Breakdown

Bad call in Green Bay/Seattle game was the result of an anti-competitive cartel that is getting worse.


Bad call at Green Bay/Seattle Monday Night Football game.

"Feckless in Seattle" was the headline sports website Deadspin gave to its coverage of the controversial Monday Night Football game that ended on a blown call by a substitute officiating crew (also known as "replacement refs" or "scab refs"), who awarded a touchdown, and the victory, to the Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers.

Less than 24 hours later, an NFL press release assured the public that despite a failure to assess a Seattle penalty that would have ended the game in Green Bay's favor—and the fact that the erroneous touchdown itself could have been overturned on review—"the result of the game is final."

The game may be final, but the media and public furor won't die down for weeks, maybe months. Monday night was the inevitable climax of a public dispute that began when the NFL locked out the union representing its permanent officials. Officially, the lockout centers on pension benefits and other mundane workplace issues. But as the NFL muddles through its season using substitute referees who are neither qualified nor properly trained, there's increasing concern over the safety and "integrity" of the game.

Integrity, of course, means different things to different people. To fans and players, integrity means having competent officials who know the rules and do their best to enforce them impartially. To the NFL, integrity means the unquestioned obedience of league mandates—even when those mandates contradict one another. Case in point: Using substitute officials while simultaneously proclaiming a newfound commitment to player safety in the wake of hundreds of concussion-related lawsuits brought by former players.

The NFL's intransigence in the face of public criticism has led some commentators to seek broader political meaning in the lockout. Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports likened NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to George W. Bush and the lockout to the subprime-mortgage collapse. Paul F. Campos, writing in Salon, blamed the lockout on Ayn Rand, a remarkable feat given the author of Atlas Shrugged has been dead for over 30 years.

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Campos insisted Goodell and the NFL owners are merely following Rand's "lunatic brand of Marxism turned on its head" that demands capitalists squelch ungrateful workers like the referees, "mere laborers who, unlike the captains of industry who deign to pay their wages, have failed to climb to the top of our ruthlessly meritocratic social pyramid."

This ignores the central conflict of Rand's novels, where lone innovators like John Galt and Howard Roark stood up to the people at the top of the "social pyramid," whom Rand exposed as nothing more than second-hand bureaucrats, running socialistic cartels that operate exactly the way the National Football League does. If NFL owners are emulating Randian principles, it is those espoused by her villains, not her heroes.

Another fictional character, Star Trek's Dr. Leonard McCoy, once observed, "The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe." And that explains how the NFL got itself into its current mess. Since taking over as commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell has proven himself able at one task, strengthening the NFL's already bloated bureaucracy. The modern NFL is governed by a 292-page constitution, a 318-page collective bargaining agreement, and a 120-page rulebook. On top of that, Goodell has broadly interpreted his constitutional authority to identify and punish "conduct detrimental" to the league as a license to punish players for off-field conduct well outside the scope of their employment. Like a government regulator, he constantly changes the interpretation of existing rules to enhance his own power at the expense of those charged with carrying out his directives.

What happened on Monday Night represented a bureaucratic breakdown. Goodell clearly never planned for the referee lockout to go this long. He assumed, as with last year's lockout of the players union, that the referees would comply with his demands before the start of the regular season. The substitute officiating crews were hastily assembled without proper vetting or training.

It's especially sad that this breakdown occurred at the end of a weekend dedicated to the late Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, whose lifetime of work catapulted the league to its current popularity. Sabol and his father, Ed, did more to advance the NFL as a business than any commissioner or owner. Unfortunately, his passing probably marked the death of entrepreneurship in Goodell's bureaucratic NFL.