Twelve months ago, I spent not-inconsiderable sums of money to fly to a very cold Minneapolis and watch my hometown Philadelphia Eagles win their first Super Bowl. This year, I don’t think I’ll even bother to watch the game on television.
Admittedly, my apathy has something to do with my team not making it to the championship game to defend their title. But it also stems from the arrogance and contempt with which the National Football League (NFL), and specifically its commissioner, Roger Goodell, treat its fans.
Those fans have made the NFL into the modern cash cow it has become, but its executives seem to assume that those fans will continue to fork over billions to the NFL, regardless of how well or poorly the league treats them.
The most recent example of the NFL’s shabby treatment of its fans: A blown call in the waning minutes of the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship Game between the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints.
In case you’re not a sports fan or have been living under a rock the past week and a half, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed two obvious penalties against Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis—first by tackling him without attempting to catch the pass himself (pass interference), and second by giving Lewis a blow to the head while doing so (a personal foul). The officials called neither.
A few relevant points about this play, and horrible non-call by the officials:
As Fox News announcer and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman mentioned during the broadcast, had Robey-Coleman turned his head around, he probably would have caught the ball for an interception, and then run the ball back for a Los Angeles touchdown. He not only made a bad play by incurring that penalty (albeit one not called), he also didn’t make a good play—one that could have won the game for the Rams without causing any of the ensuing controversy.
The blown call kept New Orleans from winning the game, but they lost it themselves. Had the officials called the penalty, the Saints could have run out the clock to set up a game-winning field goal on the last play of the game. As it happened, the Saints did kick a field goal on the very next play to take the lead, but then allowed Los Angeles to kick a tying field goal as time expired in regulation, scoring a second field goal in overtime to beat the Saints.
Among NFL coaches, the Saints’ Sean Payton seems like the last person to get the benefit of the doubt on rules or officiating. In 2012, Payton was suspended for the entire season for the “Bountygate” scandal, in which Saints assistant coaches for years paid financial incentives to players to “take out” members of opposing teams, and Payton failed to stop the scheme.
Despite all that context, the basic facts remain the same: The officials missed an obvious call very late in a high-profile game, and it cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. To say that the blown call caused an uproar, particularly in Louisiana, would put it mildly. Gayle Benson, the Saints’ owner, made a public statement emphasizing the need to protect the integrity of the game; some Saints fans filed a lawsuit, seeking a game do-over.
Millions of fans see a call blown, a team shut out of the Super Bowl, a city broiling with (justifiable) outrage, and what does Roger Goodell have to say for himself and the league? In a word, nothing. And people thought Marie Antoinette had chutzpah for “Let them eat cake.”
Contempt For Fans
Goodell finally addressed the matter at his annual pre-Super Bowl press conference Wednesday—a full ten days after the controversial game. In response to a question by a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he claimed that “we understand the frustration of the fans…the team, the players. We understand the frustration that they feel right now, and we certainly want to address that.”
No, he doesn’t. If Goodell really “want[ed] to address that” frustration, he would have done so the very next day, by personally acknowledging the error and apologizing to fans. He didn’t. He waited a week and a half, until a previously scheduled press conference, to address the matter—and then did so only in response to questions by reporters, rather than leading with his own statement of apology.
Goodell can claim whatever he likes. His prolonged and deafening silence on the matter amounted to a single-digit salute—not just to the Saints players and organization, but the city of New Orleans, and football fans everywhere who care about the integrity of the game.
Goodell’s behavior on behalf of the NFL raises questions both for fans, and for the players: Why continue to associate with an organization that treats them with such barely disguised contempt? In Louisiana on Wednesday, reporters and Twitter observers suspected that Saints coach Sean Payton wore a “Goodell clown” T-shirt under his pullover.
If they had a collective mind to do so, players could do far more to influence NFL policy than make subversive sartorial comments. Most players spend but a few years in the league, with the average tenure declining in recent years. And with a median salary of around $2 to 3 million—a large chunk of which gets consumed in taxes—and the ever-present risk of a career-ending injury, most players have valid financial reasons to think twice about protesting too loudly.
But high-profile and well-paid players—think major quarterbacks—could influence the NFL in significant ways, should they ever choose to do so. Take the Saints’ quarterback, Drew Brees. A 12-time Pro Bowl player, and certain Hall of Famer, Brees ranked as the highest-paid player in the NFL two seasons ago.
On the back end of his career, and set for life financially, Brees has a degree of independence most would envy. If he decided to tell Goodell to go stick it over the blown call that cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl, and either retire or decamp to the soon-to-launch Alliance of American Football, you better believe that would get the NFL’s attention pronto.
But unless and until major players start speaking up, or fans start deserting the league in droves—which they haven’t this year, as television ratings have risen—Goodell will act like a “glass bowl” (or something very similar), and treat fans with continued arrogance and contempt.
Given this dynamic, I feel no need or desire to watch the game on Sunday. Like most of America, while I respect the continued success of the New England Patriots and their quarterback, Tom Brady, I also have little desire to watch them try and win a sixth Super Bowl title. So eschewing the broadcast serves multiple purposes.
In case you didn’t know, on Sunday evening PBS will air a new episode of “Victoria,” Animal Planet will air its annual “Puppy Bowl,” and game show network Buzzr will air its “Buzzr Bowl,” re-airing game shows featuring celebrity football contestants. To put it another way: There are many entertainment alternatives to an organization that thinks so little of its fans. Perhaps it’s time for football fans to use them.