The Real Reason For Craptastic NFL Officiating

Photo: NFL Booth Review

There is much to hate about this sport I love. Well, not the sport per se; more the NFL’s management of it.

The Golden Tate Non-Call Travesty

The national media that covers the National Football League has been up in arms since the NFL officiating crew ignored the flagrant mugging New York Giants receiver Golden Tate received at the hands of New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones Thursday night.

The play was reviewed by the NFL’s officiating crew in New York and yet no penalty was called.

It is telling that once such a miscarriage of football justice happens to teams located in the center of the East Coast media, it all of a sudden becomes a big deal.

Yahoo Sports columnist Charles Robinson blames it on sheer stubbornness:

After five weeks of essentially ignoring the most controversial rule change of the offseason, NFL officials have given fans the evidence to prove a growing theory: The new pass interference challenge is failing and it’s because officials are refusing to admit a mistake.

Biggest blown call of season may prove NFL officials are wrecking new pass interference rule

The Dalvin Cook Offensive Pass Interference Travesty

Vikings fans, of course, are familiar with such officiating slights. The Vikings had a touchdown erased due to a highly suspect pass interference call against Dalvin Cook during the Green Bay game. It could very well have made the difference in the loss.

The Star Tribune‘s Michael Rand pointed out:

The play certainly didn’t seem to meet the NFL’s newfangled pass interference replay threshold of “clear and obvious visual evidence” at the time.

And it certainly doesn’t now given the trend that has emerged in more recent weeks.

Fruitless NFL pass interference reviews make call on Dalvin Cook vs. Packers even worse

Fox 9 analyst Ron Johnson shared a similar play in which pass interference was not called on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Johnson has pointed out that both calls were reviewed by the same officiating crew in NFL headquarters.

I have a more logical theory than Charles Robinson’s take on officiating intransigence. These officiating decisions are a deliberate attempt to shape a storyline.

The NFL Is A Content Company

If you hadn’t noticed, the National Footall League is celebrating its 100th season this year. The NFL hasn’t always been the golden goose it has become.

The Sporting Event Era

Photo: Canton Bulldogs
Canton Bulldogs

The league began in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association; that is, an association of professionals. In this case, people who played football professionally. Or more specifically, an association of football teams. Among them:

  • Akron Pros
  • Canton Bulldogs
  • Cleveland Indians
  • Dayton Triangles

All teams from Ohio but other teams were subsequently added from other states:

  • Hammond Pros & Muncie Flyers from Indiana
  • Rochester Jeffersons from New York
  • Rock Island Independents, Decature Staleys (later become the Bears), Racine (and later Chicago and even later St. Louis and still later Arizona) Cardinals from Illinois

The point of the association was obviously to organize a league and the cause was to play football. Teams sustained themselves through the sale of tickets to attend games.

The Entertainment Era

Photo: New York Giants vs Baltimore Colts
New York Giants vs Baltimore Colts

October 22, 1939 marked the first television broadcast of an NFL game, a contest between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1943, the Thanksgiving Day game between the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions became the first NFL game broadcast nationally on radio, with Graham McNamee the announcer for NBC.

But it wasn’t until 1953 that the NFL was broadcast nationally coast-to-coast for a full season.

In 1955, NBC paid the league $100,000 for the rights to broadcast the NFL Championship game. Three years later, those rights would produce the famous “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.

The broadcast demonstrated the nationwide popularity of the game to broadcasters and advertisers alike. It set the stage for the ever-escalating television contracts to come and marked the beginning of the league as an entertainment business.

While the broadcasting of games generated additional revenue for the league, it also had the effect of growing more football fans who would buy tickets to see their favorite team play in person.

This documentary about the NFL on TV by ESPN examines why the game makes such appealing television fare. (The sound, unfortnately, is crappy).
ESPN Documentary: The History of the NFL on Television

The Content Era

Photo: Steve Sabol
Steve Sabol

I would mark 1962 as the begining of the NFL’s content era, with the creation of what became NFL Films by Steve Sabol.

In 1965 Sabol was given the green light to shoot all NFL games and produce an annual highlight film for each team.
Steve Sabol: A Football Life

Sabol’s job, then, was to create content that would be used to market the NFL. His tools were dramatic cinematography and storytelling narrated compellingly by John Facenda.

“They Call It Pro Football” is an early, award-winning example of such content:

But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the National Football League’s content era really begins, with the launch of the NFL Network in 2003.

With its own 24-hour cable channel, its web presence at, and its social media properties, the NFL transformed itself into a content production company well beyond its sporting event roots.

Nationally, the NFL hires its own reporters and distributes its own content directly to its audience without necessarily having to rely on sports journalists to deliver its content.

Content production subsequently became standard operating procedure with each individual team, as well.

The Vikings have their own in-house studio from which the team produces content for the Vikings Entertainment Network, described by the team as:

Vikings Entertainment Network is the umbrella for all Vikings entertainment initiatives including television, radio, and in-stadium programming. The goal of VEN is to engage Vikings fans on a daily basis by providing exclusive, high quality news and entertainment content across all platforms.
Photo: Vikings TCO Studios
Vikings TCO Studios

What is the one essential thing you need if you are in the content business? Storylines.

One illustration of how the NFL creates storylines is provided by the Vikings themselves, with their episodic The Voyage show:

I’m Not Inclined To Believe In Conspiracies…But…

…but compelling storylines sell.

NFL Storylines

So if a team from a state that has just suffered the epic tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina is on the verge of advancing to the Super Bowl for the first time in its existence, maybe the refs don’t throw roughing the quarterback flags on clearly illegal high/low hits to Brett Favre.

And maybe you call a phantom pass interference penalty against Ben Leber in overtime to put the Saints in position for the game-winning field goal.

If you’ve got a team with a quarterback whose jersey is regularly among the top selling in the league, maybe you take a score off the board to give Aaron Rogers‘ team a boost.

If you’ve got an out-of-nowhere rookie quarterback who has become the talk of the league, maybe you don’t call offensive pass interference against Gardner Minshew team on the same exact type of play for which you called OPI against Dalvin Cook in order to keep the new hotness hot.

If there’s a question of whether 2019 might be the last season for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, maybe you ignore a flagrant assault by a Patriot’s cornerback in order to ensure one last playoff appearance.

Creating compelling storylines for the NFL’s content products seems to me a more plausible explanation for sins of officiating than simple stubbornness.

It has been said that all revolutions begin as a cause, turn into a business, and end as a racket.

Are we in the racket phase of the sports marketing revolution that is the NFL?