Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The NFL’s Self-Inflicted Black Eye

(Sorry. I know most of you come here for more exalted things than football. And I probably won’t talk about football again here in a good long time. But I still have some things I got to get off my chest. Besides, I can be entertaining when I get worked up over such things.)

The Playoffs and Super Bowl just ended weren’t just awful for fans like me who appreciate well played football on a level (i.e. fairly reffed) playing field, they were a disaster for the NFL.

If the NFL realizes what a disaster it was and makes needed changes, it can recover. But if not . . . . Let me explain.

There is nothing, I mean nothing a sports fan hates more than a stacked deck, a rigged game, whatever you want to call it. That’s why there is so much outrage about the Playoffs and Super Bowl this year. The refereeing was terrible and had a big effect on more than one game, especially the Super Bowl itself.

With the widespread perception (fair or unfair) that the NFL was rooting for Pittsburgh once it got past the Colts, the Super Bowl has put the NFL in a precarious position. They must insure that this bad joke of a championship doesn’t happen again for a good, long time. This Super Bowl must become an unfortunate aberration and soon. For if fans feel that not just this one game, but the league itself is rigged, they will likely turn against it or just walk away.

I’m a good illustration of that.

I used to be a Major League Baseball fan. As a kid, I’d curl up on my bed with a radio broadcasting the Texas Rangers on WBAP. Later, I went to about a half dozen Ranger games a year and read about the games every day. Nolan Ryan, especially, was and still is my hero.

But then came the dark years where the New York Yankees went to the World Series year after year after year. Putting aside umpires’ favoritism toward them, it was clear that the Major Leagues were financially structured in such a way that rigged the game in their favor. Hating the Yankees, I turned against the game and now almost ignore it. That the latest fair haired boy, the Chicago White Sox, were helped to their world championship last year by outrageous calls, have hardened my distaste for Major League Baseball. After seeing one playoff game in particular rigged by an inexcusable call, I boycotted the rest of the baseball playoffs. (And after seeing Texas Rangers management handle Kenny Rogers with kid gloves after his totally unprovoked assault of a cameraman, I’m not even a Rangers fan any more.)

Now, back to football. When I was younger, I followed football mainly because I was a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan. But deep inside, I hated the NFL for their favoritism toward teams like the Steelers, the Raiders, and the 49’ers both on (reffing) and off the field. I saw referees favor dirty-playing teams like the Steelers and the Raiders. I saw the NFL only give the 49’ers a slap on the wrist when it came out that their championship teams were financed in blatant violation of league rules by their crook owner.

And usually two or more of such teams I loved to hate were dominant year after year because the financial structure of the NFL was rigged.

The only reasons I retained an interest in NFL football when I soured on the Cowboys under Barry Switzer are: 1. The Cowboys are one of the world’s best soap operas. 2. The NFL restructured and discovered parity. And lo and behold, previous have-nots like New England and Tampa Bay whom I had rooted for as underdogs for years were going to the Super Bowl . . . and winning! And the teams I loved to hate had trouble adjusting to the new level playing field and were getting beat. And who would have good seasons became *gasp* unpredictable!

The NFL became fun. And so even though I wasn’t nearly as diehard a Cowboys fan, I became an NFL fan. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL did right by its fans. Even the refereeing improved.

BUT if (and it’s a big “if”), the NFL in any way goes back to becoming a rigged league like the bad old days, I will curse it and turn against it. And I won’t be alone. Look what happened to the Major League Baseball fan base since it became the New York Yankees League. If people want to see rigged sport, they’ll watch professional wrestling (and I don’t.).

And, yes, I still resent that the Dallas Cowboys were hurt bad by the refs in two Super Bowls and that the Pittsburgh Steelers were helped greatly by the refs in what is now two Super Bowls. To keep this fan, they best not bring back those memories ever again like they did on Super Sunday.

The NFL needs to do two things pronto:
1. Improve the referee corp. And that includes firing some refs. One of the things that’s killed Major League Baseball is that it’s cowed by its umpires’ union and puts up with terrible umpires.

2. Try to hide its favoritism a little bit better. Better yet, do away with it. With the huge Pittsburgh fan base (and the small Seattle fan base) and with the overrated history of the Steelers, the NFL was sorely tempted to take sides. There is at least the perception out there (and right here) that it gave into that temptation.

The NFL deserves credit for becoming a more level (and more entertaining) playing field. But if it goes back to being an unlevel field or even seems to do so, then I and a number of fans will leave the stands and change the channels and not come back. And this year’s playoffs and Super Bowl were more than one step in that wrong direction.

UPDATE: If you think I’m exaggerating the harm the Super Bowl did to the NFL’s credibility, 42% in an ESPN poll said the poor officiating is what they find most memorable about this Super Bowl. And Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren, no hot head, seriously dissed the NFL when he told a Seattle crowd, "We knew it was going to be tough going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well."

The NFL needs to live down this Super Bowl.

By the way, I got another prognostication for you: Because of fan anger and sympathy, Seattle just became America’s Team.

MORE: If you want a broad sample of the serious problems the NFL now has with fans, read some of this long discussion thread. (Be warned that some of the language is unanglican.)

No comments: