The NFL has a proud tradition of semi-professional officiating. The men who wear the stripes are under paid, under trained and seemingly under the control of some mindless bureaucracy that is working to remove fan enjoyment from the sport.
As a result, hardly a game goes by without several “subjective” calls adversely affecting the flow of the competition or even its outcome. In other words, what we have here is a failure to officiate, and the result is frustration and aggravation for us fans.
New rules interpretations, put into play this season, have made matters worse. The zebras have been given additional areas where they can use their subjective judgment to sabotage games. And now that the playoffs are here, that means the men in stripes will be working at a super-charged pace to put an end to your football enjoyment.
Home of the Hits
This started back in October, when the NFL began suspending players for so-called dangerous and flagrant hits, particularly those involving helmets. Ray Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations, put it in perspective for ESPN:
"We are trying to get our players to not initiate contact on defenseless players including defenseless receivers to the head or neck area with the forearm, the shoulder or the helmet. We're trying to get that out of the game. We're trying to protect everybody in defenseless positions from head and neck injuries."
Tell that to a defensive back who has spent the last six months sacrificing his time and his body to get his team to the playoffs, and now has a split second decision to make. Rule or no rule, he’s going to whack that “defenseless receiver” with all his might to separate him from the ball. Isn’t that why we’re watching football instead of soccer?
Hold on, there’s a flag on the play, along with a multi-thousand dollar fine and an immediate playoff-long suspension. Meanwhile, the fans are wondering: why are we spending our time watching a retired phys ed teacher in a striped shirt ruin what used to be our favorite sport?
Power to the Zebras
Anderson emphasized that he’s not changing the rules, but ratcheting up enforcement. In other words, he is giving more power to the ref and his crew, while dropping a bomb on hard-hitting defenses.
"You should know the rules," Anderson added. "If you're in violation of those rules we're going to hold you to a higher standard."
So for instance, a defender "has to adjust his target area. He has to wrap up. He has to do things more fundamentally."
Clear as Lambeau Field mud, no? Let’s call an official timeout and take a look under the hood. Here is what the “League’s Official Player Safety Rules” state:
“The League will continue to stress enforcement of the personal foul rules, with special emphasis on the unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer rules that prohibit hits on players in defenseless positions, including passers in the act of passing, receivers in the process of attempting to catch a pass, a runner whose forward progress has been stopped and is already in the grasp of a tackler, a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick, and a player on the ground at the end of a play.”
That covers just about any type of play in the game, which means officials can use their subjective powers anytime they want. Is this anyway to run the playoffs that lead to the Super Bowl?
The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind
While empowering its part-time officiating staff with god-like authority, the NFL is turning a blind eye to a major cause of tardy hits and subsequent injuries—the late whistle.
You’ve probably noticed the trend: the increasing number of plays where the runner or receiver has been stopped, and suddenly he breaks away to go on to gain greater yardage. Or, the ball carrier is stood up to take repeated blows from incoming defenders, while he fails to struggle forward.
The reason we’re seeing more of that is because officials have been told by the League to hold off blowing their whistles so the boys can have at it for a little longer at the end of each play. It’s good for the action, but hard on the head.
In fact, we’re not the only ones who have noticed that the striped birds are taking longer and longer to chirp. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wants officials to blow their whistles sooner, to crank down the possibility of unnecessary or late hits. Tomlin made the request when asked by the Associated Press if his players are taught to play beyond the whistle.
"Well, you let me know when you hear a whistle," the Steelers coach said. "That's one of my contentions. There's been a de-emphasis on the whistle, as far as I'm concerned, in the National Football League—and I don't agree with it. We talk about player safety, yet we don't blow whistles at the end of football plays. So that's kind of a misnomer when you're talking about the whistle. What we want to do is play until the action ceases."
Whistle While You Work
In essence, the National Football League is increasing player safety with its devastating hit prohibitions, while it takes it away with its late whistle policy. The first puts the game in the subjective and not so capable judgment of the officials, while the second should be clear-cut: as soon as the player’s progress is stopped, the whistle blows and the play is dead. Any further action calls for a penalty.
Given the choice between the two, it sounds like more timely whistling is the way to go. The ref just needs to focus on the forward progress of the player and blow. No split second subjective, ethical or moral judgments need to be made.
But no, the playoffs will be contested under the subjective powers of the lowliest officials in major league sports. And no doubt the outcome of more than one important game will be the victim.
Can’t happen? Consider NFL official Bill Leavy’s recent admission that he blew two fourth-quarter calls that helped the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in the 2006 Super Bowl.
“It was a tough thing for me,” he told The Seattle Times. “I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game and as an official you never want to do that. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights and I think about it constantly. I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better.”
Bill has avoided burial as of yet. In fact he’s still refereeing in the NFL, untouched and unpunished, and most likely enjoying his new game-changing powers.
Here is one more chilling thought to consider regarding the new authority that the NFL’s staff of part-time officials have over the sport. It comes from The League’s Player Safety Rules: “The Competition Committee emphasizes that whenever a game official is confronted with a potential unnecessary-roughness situation and is in doubt about calling a foul, he should lean toward safety and not hesitate to throw the flag.”
So much for that third-down stop by the defense that was about to change the flow of the Super Bowl. There’s a flag on the play because the ref is confused. When in doubt, throw it out. Throw out the play. Throw out the player. Throw out the excitement. And throw out the very essence of the game. Anyone for a little two-hand touch?