Monday, December 18, 2017

Working to Rule to Dig a Hole Clear to China.

The most amazing thing about the touchdown turned incompletion that swung yesterday's Pats-Steelers game was that it was only the third most amazingly ridiculous and/or disastrous event to hit the NFL in the same day.

Having the season's most important regular season game boil down to the enforcement of the sport's stupidest, nonsensical and loathed rule was not a very good look for the league. A thrilling and chaotic game (all the best football games are chaotic) was halted in its tracks so that the refs and league office could look at super slo-mo replays to commit the cardinal sin of officiating in any sport -- intervening in a game-deciding event when not absolutely necessary. In its arrogant pettifogging placing the NFL's self-image as an institution above its actual role as a provider of mass entertainment, not to mention common sense, the negating of Jesse James' touchdown reception reminded me of nothing so much as Deflategate.

Important side note. One of the worst side effects of an atrocity like a game-deciding catch rule call is that it cheats the winners as well as the losers. The Pats deserved a victory unmarred by needless controversy. So did the Steelers. That's the hell of it.

But then, the NFL's second-most important 2017, Rams-Eagles, was another corker that is remembered one week later only for a season-ending injury Carson Wentz, only the favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award. So maybe a horrible rule striking at the wrong time isn't the worst that can happen to a team.

Moving from officiating tragedy to officiating farce, we had Gene Steratore's use of an index card to measure whether or not the Cowboys converted a fourth-down against the Raiders. What a comment on the NFL's use of technology. Over in Pittsburgh, it's video uber alles. Back in Oakland, we had the single lowest-tech device in the sport, the down and distance chain, measured through something found in the ref's pocket. Since laser distance finding technology is now in the bag of four out of five recreational golfers and will be a stocking stuffer for many more in a week, there is no explanation for the league's comical embrace of the down markers.

First debacle, then comedy, and finally outrage. Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, announced he's selling the club. He's cashing out in response to reports that he has been a serial sexual harasser of the franchise's women employees. He didn't bother to deny them.
Richardson has been one of the NFL's most ferociously anti-labor owners.  I wonder if it's any comfort to the NFLPA to know Richardson didn't just think his strong young black players were chattel -- he felt all his employees were.

Since Richardson was one of only 32 old rich guys or the offspring of a deceased old rich guy who own NFL teams, the chances that he's the last of them to be accused of such misconduct can be safely rated at zero. Gonna take a lot of F-16 flyovers to wash that out of the news, Rog.

Oh, yes, the commissioner. He got a $200 million contract extension because the value of NFL franchises has doubled under his watch. They would have doubled had Bowie Kuhn been commish, or Lena Dunham, or nobody at all. That's the fundamental problem at the heart of all three of the above stories. The NFL's status as broadcast TV's last hit show and the riches that has generated has blinded the plutocrats in control to the fact the league IS a business, not a portfolio of high-yield securities. In any business, quality control, concern for the customer, employee safety and management accountability are all kind of important for continued success.

The National Football League remains atop the heap of American sports businesses (although I'd bet if it played in the summer and not the fall and winter that'd change). It is, however, displaying all the signs of a business that is coasting on its self-assurance that it has no real rivals for its customers. The NFL strikes me as a dead ringer for the US automobile industry circa 1971. The business ran itself, right? It was easy to ignore the rot within, or even to ignore Ralph Nader. Nothing could cause drivers to abandon their generations of loyalty to GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Then came the gas shortages of the '70s. I do not know what will be the NFL's gas shortage that'll turn the league's issues and arrogance into a crisis. But there will be something, and days like yesterday make it seem as if the something will come sooner rather than later.