Super Bowl

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.

(Article continues below video.)

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.

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  1. I think we covered all this in the A.M. Links.

  2. 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.

    Oh my god, make it stop, please.

    1. I have a new ambition:

      I want people to be blaming me for shit after I’ve been dead for over 30 years.

      1. Brainwash your grandkids and you’re home free.

    2. Ayn Rand is apparently the right-wing-boogeyman counterpart to Saul Alinksy.

  3. 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.

    As easy as it is to blame Goodell here (and the criticism is well-deserved), what’s left out here is that he’s basically answering to the owners in this situation, same as during the player lockout. If the two sides are having problems coming to an agreement, it’s because the owners bottom line isn’t being impacted right now.

    Also, anyone trying to find deeper meaning in this is desperate. Goodell isn’t any more of a tyrant or bureaucrat than Rozelle and Tagliabue were–as I recall, the NFL suffered two player strikes in less than ten years under Rozelle’s watch. The difference now is that the TV money coming in is at near-stupid levels, and EVERYONE is looking for their cut, including Ed Hercules and his merry band of Tuck Rule-calling misfits.

    1. I’m actually enjoying this season. It has an extra element of unpredictability, kind of in a NASCAR “will they or won’t they crash the car and will it catch fire if it does crash?” kind of way.

      1. What’s really stupid about this whole thing is the chimpouts from the media and the players. Gee, it wasn’t so long ago that these same “professionals” were being criticized for their performance in Super Bowl XL:

        The officiating in Super Bowl XL was met with harsh criticism from some of the media soon after the game, with some columnists saying that the officiating cost the Seahawks the game. One call that was complained about was an offensive pass interference on wide receiver Darrell Jackson for a “push-off” against Steelers safety Chris Hope that nullified his 16-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.[11] Another complaint had to do with a questionable penalty in the fourth quarter against Seattle right tackle Sean Locklear for holding Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans around the neck that nullified a deep pass. Also disputed was the penalty on Hasselbeck for an illegal block while simply making a tackle during Ike Taylor’s interception return.

        This was in the biggest game of the season, yet somehow the world didn’t end over it. So, as much as the calls are irritating me, fuck these people acting like the “integrity of the game” is being ruined.

    2. Raider Fan?

      1. Broncos, actually–just because I hate the Raiders like Obama hates taking responsibility doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that they got screwed.

  4. Maybe Green Bay, and others, should stop fucking whining considering how many bad calls kept them alive and kept several drives moving forward. There were bad calls all over the fucking place, affecting both teams sometimes positively sometimes negatively. Whining about just one is retarded.

    1. Yeah, but THAT one….jeez. I agree that any call can affect the overall outcome of the game, but this directly decided who won the game.

      And they were egregiously wrong, twice.

      1. Every call that reversed a change of possession potentially decided who won. From Packer drives that were kept alive by stupid flags to the Packer interception that they lost, all that shit had major effects.

        1. I agree that yes, “potentially” they can decide who won. But this call did not “potentially” decide who won. It DIRECTLY decided who won.

          I bet that Green Bay is probably more worried about the fact that Rodgers was used as a tackling dummy by the Hawks defense then by the fact that they lost the game on this terrible call. But you never want to see a ref decide the outcome of the game, because when they get it wrong as they did in this case it subtracts from the game itself.

    2. So teams should have no expectation that the rules will be enforced as written because you assert all the mistakes will even out in the end?

      That’s like saying that nobody should be whining about incompetent judges because they’re just as likely to find you innocent as guilty by mistake.

      1. The difference is that in games the refs make judgement calls thousands of times. A judge makes a final decision in the very end. If the refs watched the whole game, and didn’t say who won until it was all over, then the game would wholly rest on their competency. Thankfully, that’s not the way the NFL works. How a team plays is 99% of the score. How a ref influences a few plays is the other 1%.

        1. That’s how it SHOULD be, but the replacement refs have changed those proportions. And as we’ve seen, they very quickly begin to change both the outcomes of individual plays and the game as a whole.

  5. The replacement refs are not the problem, they are merely the symptom of the disease – the accretion of rules that no longer make any sense and have a disproportionate impact on the game. Other sports, like hockey, tennis, soccer, and golf have a basic set of rules that make intuitive sense. They are developed out of a need that is obvious. In the NFL (and NBA as well), every year they implement new rules that are intended to have specific outcomes (more passing, protect the QB, etc). It’s gotten to the point where these rules take away from the game and are arbitrarily. These replacement refs are doing a poor job not because they are under-trained, they are doing a good job because the game has become too difficult to referee properly, if that is even possible. This threatens the integrity of the sport. Too many times I have been suckered into watching an NFL game, only to have it essentially decided by some flag at a crucial point. People fail to see the larger problem here.

    1. Your theory is better than my theory.

      I liked the new reffing the first two weeks because they were hardly throwing any flags. The game has become where finesse teams actually dominate because the offense is untouchable.

    2. Somehow the Union refs are able to call the game far more accurately than the replacements.

      It’s not that the rules are too hard for humans to enforce–it’s that the league isn’t willing to pay to hire competent officials.

        1. You say:

          “The calls are so blatant you have to wonder if the ref union is making promises and payments under the table to get a false flag going.”

          So you admit that the replacements are worse than the union refs. The difficulty of the rules is irrelevant–the union officials are better.

          1. Was my statement a question of their competency as it is a necessary component for your argument to be effective in the manner you are attempting to make it? No, it wasn’t. So, your argument, is as always, wanting.

            Their errors really began to affect the game this week when they attempted to compensate for the complaints of not calling unnecessary foul calls from the previous two weeks.

            However, in the previous seventeen years of having a local franchise, I’ve seen easily forty games that were blown due to bad ref decisions when those refs were under a full contract, so, this is nothing new and the tuck rule should really have shutted you up if you were intellectually honest.

            1. No, you’re still not getting it.

              I know refs blow calls. What’s important is the rate at which they blow calls. Even if the tuck rule is an easy rule to misjudge, the Union refs have demonstrated that they’re far better at making calls correctly than the replacements.

              The tuck rule has been around for what, 12 years? People have been complaining about these refs for 6 weeks. It’s not the rules, it’s the enforcers.

              1. What the Hell? People complain about the tuck rule to this very day! I guess you don’t hear that much about it in Mass. though.

                BTW, are you under double secret probation? Hiding from some one, Joe?

                1. You’re still missing the point.

                  The tuck rule has nothing to do with the replacement refs sucking. Eliminating the tuck rule would not solve the problem of the replacement refs sucking.

                  1. The union refs may give the appearance of calling the game more accurately, but that’s really beside the point. The penalties have too large an impact on the game. This is because the rules are too invasive and because they are designed to cause certain outcomes (protecting the QB, promote passing, etc). It’s no longer an athletic competition where the team that preforms better wins. Outcomes are arbitrarily decided. The penalties are becoming too deeply ingrained in the game (like basketball). You don’t see this in other sports.

                    1. Actually, the main problem is that the replacements have been unable to manage the game. I do Youth and High School Football games. In my first games I was timid, not willing to take control of situations when I needed too. Penalty Flags aren’t the answer to controlling the game, it’s having a strong presence, being professional, courteous, but also ready to lay down the “law.”

                      The rules are pretty convoluted; that is a factor as well, but not the main source of the issues this season.

                    2. Read your last two sentences again…

                    3. Your argument is in it’s entirety a false dilemma between crappy scab refs and The Union. There is a third solution, which is the one the NFL is gunning for. Can’t fire crappy teachers, can’t fire crappy refs. Same thing, different uniform.

      1. Being in a union has nothing to do with competency. It only has to do with a desire to create a partnership with your fellow laborers for mutual benefit. Other, non-union, referees can be trained to do the job every bit as well. It will just take time… Time that the NFL does not have.

        1. Exactly. The real advantage the union refs have over the new guys is experience, not competency. If all the union guys started out as fresh rookies this year they would have not fared any better, but would have come with a higher price tag.

          1. Experience is the largest component of competence.

            1. The problem with that reasoning, Joe, is you demonstrably have refs at various levels of calling ability in these first few weeks. Some people never gain competency. Under the union, those people have all the job protection of the most competent ref out there. At the moment, the worst among the new refs can be fired. If, say, ten percent of the worst performing refs per week are fired, and replaced, soon you will have refs that are better than the unionized ones. It may be a tough few weeks, but it will be a better game over all if the NFL sticks to their guns.

              1. How many seasons will it take to replicate the competence of the unionized refs?

                1. I predict 18.4 months. It really doesn’t make any difference, it’s football, not taxes.

    3. Tennis rules aren’t being enforced either: Nadal, and to a lesser extent Djokovic, blatantly violate the 25 seconds between points rule (on the regular tour; 20 seconds at Slams) and almost never get called on it. And when Nadal does get called, he has a conniption fit.

      Nadal is much much worse in that he deliberatly makes his opponent play to the same slow pace. And doesn’t get called on it. If it were me, I’d serve the ball at 25 seconds and claim the point if Nadal weren’t ready.

  6. The calls are so blatant you have to wonder if the ref union is making promises and payments under the table to get a false flag going.

    1. My friend and I were speculating on that possibility last night.

      1. I like Hollywood’s overcomplicated rulebook explanation. It is based on human nature without needing a condition of proof.

        However, even thought Heinlein’s Razor states, ‘never blame on malfeasance what can be attributed to stupidity’, malfeasance usually occurs as a result of attempting to cover up the stupidity. That is what it looked to me when I was witnessing that call with my own eyes.

    2. And the replacement refs fuck up their employment futures for the nebulous promise of payola?

      Does not compute.

      1. Most of these guys, replacement or regular, have day jobs or are retired and have pensions. Not that I think they’re getting payola, but really, I doubt they’re that worried about their “employment futures.”

  7. some bad typos in there but you get the point.

  8. Firstly, always good to see Oliva’s sports coverage.

    Now as for the parrot-talking heads at Salon, “Campos insisted Goodell and the NFL owners are merely following Rand’s ‘lunatic brand of Marxism turned on its head… capitalists squelch ungrateful workers….'”

    Ah, yes, the leftist hypocrisy — when governmental corporatism goes awry, when government protected cartels stumble, when governmental consumer protections hurt more than they protect, you can always count on the leftist simpleton to blame anti-government capitalism. Down is up and up is down.

    Can you imagine living in Campos’ world — this narrow-minded, little playground of naivete, where you actually believe in the mythology of good liberals vs. bad conservatives inside the Beltway, or that true free marketers are actually working in the NFL’s Park Avenue mahogany offices?

    1. Everybody likes to use events like this to advance their world view but it looks especially egregious when progressives do so because their beliefs begin with fucking retardation and can only be explicated further with compounded fucking retardation. As a human being, I’m always a little embarrassed when they don’t keep their mouths shut as it reflects poorly on the species.

    2. It’s almost heartening to see that Campos’ writing hasn’t improved one iota since he was publishing columns in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News.

  9. Has anybody considered that the refs are making bets and deliberately manipulating the outcomes?

    REPORT: Call cost bettors $1 billion!

    LAS VEGAS (CBS Las Vegas/AP) ? A top oddsmaker believes last night’s controversial blown call was worth a billion dollars in sports betting.

    Danny Sheridan, a USA Today sports analyst and handicapper, told that he believes $1 billion in total money changed hands after the replacement officials awarded Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate a touchdown catch despite Green Bay Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings clearly in possession of the football.

    Other Las Vegas oddsmakers, however, believe $300 million or more changed hands worldwide on the blown call.

    Sports book chief Jay Kornegay said Tuesday that bettors at The LVH casino registered shock, some celebration, then anger when the outcome of the Packers game against the Seahawks was decided due to what he called “a blatant bad call.”…..s-betting/

    1. It would require telepathy to have two refs make opposite calls simultaneously like in the Green Bay game.

      The simplest explanation is that the replacements just suck.

    2. Sometimes the gravy train needs a little push to get into the station. Couple of career bettors I work with were crying about how the game was fixed and these refs are on the take.

  10. The only real story here is that delusional political hacks are trying to make a point about national policy based on something as frivolous and pointless as NFL football.

  11. 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.

    That’s Mike McCarthy’s fault for putting a dead woman at free safety.

    1. Brilliant!

  12. So, a lot of people still concern themselves about this “football” thing, huh?

  13. Whatever the reason for the problem, the league could and should have given us fairness and justice by reversing the result after the game. Once again* they have stupidly copped out rather than do it. I am impressed, and not in a good way. Goodell is a moron.

    * They should also have reversed the similarly unfair outcome of the Steelers-Broncos playoff game that cheated Denver out of a Super Bowl appearance.

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