Because if there’s one thing that’s uniting NFL fans, players and coaches these days, regardless of their team affiliation, it’s the sense that the game’s very integrity is gone. The sense that what they’re seeing is not a fraud, not pro wrestling, but something legitimate, has been replaced by total cynicism and contempt.
Players don’t have a reason to respect the replacements. Thus, you have all the scrums at the end of plays, and instances where a flag gets thrown after they bark loud enough. Coaches are totally flustered (not to name any names, Bill Belichick), because they, too, can work the refs easily, but don’t know whether it will backfire on them.
Apologists who have attacked the officials’ union for seeking a little bit more for their pension fund ($3 million per year) conveniently forget the billions the NFL rakes in from their TV partners, who are not holding back in their criticism, despite their cozy status with the league.
Once you reach the point, though, where fans, who live and die with their teams, cannot trust what they are seeing, then it’s a crisis of immense proportions, something only a strong man in charge can adequately solve.
For six years now, ever since he took over as commissioner, Goodell has prided himself on being that strong man, that tough guy protecting The Shield. He cracked down on bad off-the-field conduct for players, and mostly got applauded for it.
Over time, though, Goodell has managed to alienate just about everyone but the billionaires that pay his salary. He was late to the party about the physical toll the game takes on players after they are done, and then overreacted to the Saints’ bounty case with heavy-handed suspensions that the league’s own arbitration panel found to be excessive.
Nothing, though, compares to the utter contempt Goodell and the owners have shown through this scourge of replacement officials. With the chorus of criticism at an all-time high, Goodell is at a crossroads in his tenure, where he could return to the fans’ good graces, or turn them off forever.
Perhaps the toughest thing we do, as human beings, is admit that we are wrong. It doesn’t feel nice at first, but eventually it proves cleansing, and allows us to move on to other things, to learn from those mistakes and do better the next time.
From this low moment in NFL history, Roger Goodell could redeem his place in sports by stepping in and brining back the top officials. Or he could just count the dollars and watch his Shield get permanently tarnished. It’s all up to him.