Kobritz: NFL officiating negatively impacts league credibility
Beyond the Lines
Super Bowl LIII is in the books and the Patriots – ho-hum – won again. But the best news for the NFL is, unlike the league championship games, there wasn’t a single officiating controversy.
The most egregious error occurred in New Orleans. Ask any Saints fan and they’ll tell you the wrong NFC team played in Atlanta. Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman should have been called for pass interference with 1:53 left in the fourth quarter. Instead of first-and-ten deep in Rams territory, the Saints were forced to kick a field goal on fourth down. That left the Rams ample time to march down the field and kick a tying field goal to take the game into overtime, where another Rams field goal sent them to the Super Bowl.
After Robey-Coleman crowed after the game he should have been called for pass interference, he was fined by the league for levying a helmet-to-helmet hit on the receiver, small consolation for Saints fans.
Although the officials clearly blew the call, the NFL’s post-game response – or more accurately, non-response - was more problematic than the error itself. Saints tight end Ben Watson, one of the most respected players in the league, said it best. In criticizing Commissioner Roger Goodell, Watson said, "Your continued silence on this matter is unbecoming of the position you hold, detrimental to the integrity of the game and disrespectful and dismissive to football fans everywhere. From the locker room to Park Ave., accountability is what makes our league great. Lead by example. We are waiting.”
Goodell was finally forced to address the matter publicly during his annual state of the league Q & A with the media prior to the Super Bowl. He acknowledged the obvious: “It is a play that should be called. Whenever officiating is part of any kind of discussion postgame, it is never a good outcome for us.”
Goodell is right: The play should have been called. And in today’s NFL, it isn’t technically subject to review. Any attempt to circumvent that rule would have created additional discontent – among teams, officials and fans. Once the officials continued play without dropping a flag, the league was in a no win situation. But Watson, whose remarks were supported by other players, was just as right as Goodell. Although league officials did speak with members of the Saints hierarchy, including owner Gayle Benson, after the game, those discussions were all in private.
The commissioner should have addressed the issue within 24-48 hours. If the players understand that, why didn’t the league? Nothing short of the league’s credibility was at stake. A crisis management plan, if the league has one, should have covered that.
Not to let the officials or the league off the hook, but the Saints blew it too. They had ample opportunities to win the game, both prior to and after the disastrous play. But the only thing most fans will remember is the officials blew it and the Saints were robbed. That’s not a good look for the country’s premier sports league.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.