Frustrated NFL Fan

You know what really grinds my gears?

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An Open Letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Dear Commissioner Goodell –
I’m writing to express my frustration with the NFL this season. This is not due to the performance of the team I follow or any interest in portraying them as a victim or aggrieved party any more than any other team – it is because of the profound sadness I feel at the rapid decline of the league I love; the integrity of this season has been needlessly compromised due to under-qualified officiating.

While Week One of the regular season was conducted without major incident, with each game beyond that, the debacle of this experiment has been blatantly exposed.

I do have some teams and players that I follow and want to see do well, however, in past years I’ve watched nearly every available NFL regular season and postseason game because I enjoy the league’s product so much. I avoid going places during the season that would not allow me to spend all my Sundays, Monday evenings and Thursday evenings watching games. I prefer not to go to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving because they do not have NFL Network.

I used to be quite successful when I participated in fantasy leagues, but I haven’t played in a number of years because I didn’t like how it changed the way I watched the game. I prefer not to worry about statistics. I prefer to value a running back who contributes in pass protection, appreciate a receiver who sacrifices himself for a block, see a lineman occupy an opponent enough to free a teammate to make a play and appreciate the countless other selfless acts by players over the course of each and every game in which a player will forego personal glory and individual recognition for the success of their team.

Despite that fanaticism (that may seem to toe the line of “irrational” to some), I pride myself on taking a rational approach to the sports, teams and leagues that I follow. I can be passionate for the teams I love (and against the teams I dislike) while remaining reasonable and realistic about the elements that contribute to the outcome of games. I try to understand how and why things happen before expressing outrage over the fact that they happened in a way I did not want. I accept if my team loses when they are outplayed. I’ll admit when they win a game they have no business winning. I give credit where credit is due. I will point out mistakes that benefit my team as well as those that benefit the opponent. I understand that sometimes things don’t turn out as I would like and that outcomes are not always fair. That’s reality.

Officials are critical contributors in any sport. They fulfill a key role not just in adjudicating violations in the run of play, but in a quality control capacity – managing the 22 players on the field and assuring that the competition is conducted within the standards of the game. Their man-management and intervention (short of flagging infractions) can prevent simmering tensions from escalating into full-blown confrontations that require harsher punishment. This role is often overlooked, but the more physical the sport, the more invaluable a role this is. Through this expertise, and enabled by the respect they have earned from past interactions with many of the players, they assure that the flow of the game is maintained, allowing offenses and defenses to get into rhythm, execute their gameplans and provide an exciting, entertaining, and compelling competition. Without the respect their experience merits, we have seen in recent weeks that many players do not recognize their authority in man-management situations just because of the uniform they wear. Without that track record of acting with integrity and competence, many players will look for ways to push the boundaries of what is permissible and what they can get away with. While there are some officials in recent past seasons who often baffle me with their interpretations, at least we know what we’re getting when we see their name assigned to a particular game – there is a procedural correctness that brings them to those calls and a consistency. They err in the direction of fairness, adherence to the rules and what they see, and in recent years they’ve been erring in the direction of player safety. They nearly always remain in control of the proceedings. They are not intimidated by the noise of a home crowd. They do not shrink in big moments. They are battle tested. They are not always correct, but they are at the pinnacle of their profession because they have shown themselves to be the best-qualified to fill that role.

If a referee is shielded by bodies and cannot see a play properly, I understand that may sometimes lead to an incorrect call. Sure it can be frustrating, but that’s part of the human element in sport – the unscripted drama that makes it so exciting to watch. It’s what has made the NFL such a valued property and what Ed Sabol and his late son Steve so brilliantly brought to life over the years through their excellent work at NFL Films.

Results, statistics and player safety have already been compromised this season due to the substandard quality of the officials that have been enlisted to defraud your customers, players, coaches and all other stakeholders with performances that should make you ashamed to have them conducted under the NFL banner. The integrity of the season has already been diminished. No matter which team wins this year’s Super Bowl, their title will deserve an asterisk in the minds of many of your fans. I will feel this way even if one of my favorite teams wins the Super Bowl. This quality of product is not deserving of the NFL name, a name and standard that has been established over multiple generations of fine men putting their bodies in harm’s way and sacrificing the later years of their lives for their love of the game.

I do not say this because I take any joy in pointing out other’s shortcomings – I would have been very happy had the first three weeks of the season been competently officiated and the drop-in-quality been less severe and less perceptible to all observers. I do not feel many of the mistakes by the amateur officials have been due to malicious intent. I accept that many of them are good people who are trying their best, but you have put them in a situation for which they are ill-prepared and unable to competently navigate.

You have the power to correct this. There is no shame in admitting an attempt to gain an upper hand in a business negotiation has failed. There is shame in continuing to degrade the public perception of your product through this charade. Your customers are not falling for it; frankly, we’re insulted by it.

Something my friends and acquaintances enjoy about watching sports with me is that I can usuallly explain what’s happening and why, helping them better understand and appreciate the talent of the players and the brilliance of the coaching strategy that contribute to the greatness of the sport. I’ll make observations before the commentators do. I can patiently rewind on my DVR and point out what they should be paying attention to when we press play, so they can see it develop and understand what they were trying to achieve. What the QB saw. How he manipulated the defenders and then exploited what they gave him. This year, I have had difficulty enjoying the game because I just can’t make sense of what is playing out in front of me. I can’t explain what the officials are calling and neither can the commentators (who presumably have more access to different camera angles and information in-stadium than I have at home). I’m finding myself frequently not even paying attention when I have the game on, finding something else to occupy my mind.

This is not fun. This is not entertaining. The only thing it is is frustrating.

I am not one of those fans inclined to criticize “Roger Goodell’s NFL” and blame you personally for every slight – both real and imagined – I perceive to exist in the sport (or the world). I am largely on-board with your efforts to address player safety, to punish players whose violence is outside the rules and puts other players needlessly in harm’s way. I don’t object to much of the way you’ve handled the bounty situation in New Orleans – it is well within your right to make a strong example of those team employees who flaunted the rules and continued their system well after they had received multiple warnings. I appreciate that you have a business to run and that you face many pressures in satisfying multiple constituencies, amongst them the owners, Congress, courts, and countless others who expect you to act with a certain degree of acquiescence to their own agenda.

After the early games in Week 3, my wife was genuinely concerned when I turned off Sunday Ticket, instead of watching the conclusion of some overtime contests.

I stepped away and did some laundry.

I pondered “how could I keep patronizing a business that is showing such blatant disrespect for me as its loyal customer?”

In past years, I intently followed Major League Baseball, but after its strike and the permanent bastardization of the sport and its history through things like its laissez-faire attitude toward performance-enhancing substance abuse (something I blame squarely on the commissioner), I drifted away from it and discovered I could live without it. I follow it casually now, but it’s really not part of my routine or my life any more. I could take it or leave it.

Similarly, for many years I was a big fan of the NBA – I was a total basketball junkie. The teams I followed over the years changed, but what drove me away from the sport was the injustice of how the Sacramento Kings – a team I thoroughly enjoyed watching – were eliminated from the playoffs in 2002. The integrity of the game was lost. Years later we found out from a corrupt official about the questionable agendas at play in that series.

Now we have a similar threat to the league that I love so dearly. There are officials who have not been properly trained, properly vetted, who have allegiances to teams and not to the league or the integrity of the sport. My anger and frustration eventually just settled to sadness. What could I do?

Then I sat down, created this blog, e-mail address, twitter account and drafted this letter.

I believe if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem. If, in some small way, this rant contributes to furthering your appreciation for how much your most loyal fans and customers are affected by this, then perhaps I can be part of the solution. I hope you, too, are willing to do whatever it takes to be part of the solution. Right now you are seen as the primary source of a problem that is impacting not only you, but all of us.

As you know, the BYE weeks begin next week. At this point you have the opportunity to assure that each team has 13 games with professional officials. It would be a shame if some teams played more games with these amateur officials than others.

Please PLEASE fix this. Now.

Thank you for your respectful consideration,

A Frustrated NFL Fan (one of the many)


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