Roger Goodell and the replacement refs

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Seahawks-Packers game ended in disaster for the NFL Monday night when the replacement refs handed the Seahawks a win on national television. Now it's time to wonder about Roger Goodell.

Roger Goodell had to be watching, right? Maybe he grimaced a little when the refs bailed out the Seahawks on an iffy pass interference call on 1st and 25 late in the game, but he was probably breathing easy down the stretch, stretching back into an impossibly comfortable leather chair as the Seahawks slowly sputtered away the final seconds. Then all hell broke loose.

12 hours later, we can only assume there is a shattered LCD remote somewhere in the Goodell household that is more expensive than any TV you’ve ever owned. WASN’T IT GLORIOUS?

You know the backstory by now: The NFL’s replacement referees gave the Seahawks a win Monday night in one of the most spectacularly shady endings we’ve seen in the 21st Century. If this had happened 20 years ago during some other officiating lockout, we’d still be talking about it.

But for it to happen now? In a nationally televised game ending in a Hail Mary unfairly called a touchdown on a judgment call that can’t be reviewed, screwing one of the most famous teams in football? In the era of 10,000 screenshots and Twitter and every blog doing its own video breakdown? You couldn't have scripted a better nightmare. Not only will Seattle’s "Monday Night Miracle" live forever, but it’ll be inescapable in the meantime. The NFL is the biggest league on earth, which means the NFL has nowhere to hide.

After the game Jon Gruden was rendered more or less speechless on ESPN.

First: "I don’t like the way this game finished, I have a bad taste in my mouth."

Then: "Two of the worst calls at the end of a football game I can remember."

Later: "What do you want me to say?"

NOTHING!

There’s nothing serious to say about any of this.

But as outrageous as the ending was Monday, it's hard to be outraged.

Mostly, it’s just amazing that all of this is actually happening. That’s why I stayed up to watch the end of Monday Night Football. Nobody wants to miss the next surreal officiating screwup, because it’s more incredible than anything we’d ever see from a regular season football game. The NFL is a fiery car crash right now, and none of us can look away. And Roger Goodell is the one driving the car.

The owners may be every bit as responsible for the officiating lockout, but it’s the commissioner out in front, and it’s his NFL league office releasing statements every week assuring us that the referees are doing a perfectly acceptable job. It all makes every officiating disaster twice as enjoyable.

We don’t have to rehash all the reasons fans loathe Roger Goodell, except to say that this lockout is a perfect microcosm of everything. Bullet points:

  • It destroys every empty cliche Goodell has ever offered about player safety. The games have been more physical on practically every play, with cheap hits, fights, and every other liberty you’d expect players to take if they thought they’d never get caught.
  • It proves Goodell's NFL doesn’t care what fans think of football. Games last forever, every few drives we get a five minute stoppage where replacement refs basically make up rulings on the fly, and in any game that’s close it’s basically a guarantee that at least one disgraceful penalty will help decide the outcome. The NFL could have stopped this three weeks ago, but no.
  • It encompasses all the iron-fisted arrogance and hypocrisy that we’ve come to know and love. Putting incompetent officials on the field and then fining coaches who challenge them—after last Monday’s, where the Broncos and Falcons left Steve Young fuming on ESPN afterward, two Broncos were fined a combined $55,000—it fits with every other shady decision Goodell has made as commissioner. The past few weeks have just given us the most egregious examples.

So here we are, watching the NFL spiral deeper and deeper into embarrassment, where the NFL and all its arrogant hypocrisy is being laid transparent, looking every bit as ridiculous and insufferable as it always has been. And who is the face of all the NFL's arrogant hypocrisy?

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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When we talked about the replacement refs last Monday, I wrote that the NFL was too successful to care about the way the actual games looked with replacement refs. We were all watching football regardless. The demand didn’t suffer. Steve Young made the same point later that night, and it all felt right.

Now there’s a twist.. Maybe everyone will watch regardless, but the past two nationally televised games—Ravens-Patriots and Seahawks-Packers—felt almost like exhibition games. We weren’t watching to see who won, but to see what could go wrong next.

It probably won’t damage the NFL’s credibility or popularity over the long term, but Roger Goodell is another story. He’s already had his bounty suspensions overturned in a court of appeals, this past week a player pointed out the absurdity of the NFL playing Thursday Night Football all year long, and now there's this, where his league has turned into a universal punchline. If a commissioner can’t command the respect of players, broadcasters, and fans, at what point does he become the scapegoat for owners? If not for the this lockout, then for the next football crisis that strikes.

I didn’t think much of it this past summer when the possibility of a lockout loomed, because it seemed inconceivable that in the middle of endless player safety lawsuits and handwringing about the state of football, Roger Goodell would risk the liability and the PR crisis that'd come with an extended refs lockout. He couldn’t possibly be that arrogant and that stupid at the same time.

But it happened, and it's still happening. We're a month into the NFL season and it's only getting worse. Will the NFL stick with the replacements another week? Will they pretend Monday night was anything but a disaster? Goodell couldn’t possibly be that stupid and that arrogant. Could he?

Either way: Monday’s game ended with Pete Carroll doing an interview on the field and shrugging when asked where the officials were, everyone waiting for the Packers to come back from the locker room for the extra point, while Gruden told America he hoped the refs would give the win back to the Packers. The damage is done, and we already have a game and a moment that sports fans will look back on for decades.

It was spectacular.

This whole lockout has been spectacular. And as the resentment gets deeper and wider and louder among players and coaches and fans, everyone gets a little more comfortable questioning the wisdom of the man at the top. The NFL may be invincible, but Roger Goodell may not be after this. Maybe that makes the whole disaster worth it.

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