So far early in this National Football League year, the league seems to be writing The Tale of Two Seasons. It truly is the best of times in some ways — and the worst of times in at least one huge respect.
As every gridiron and sports fan is aware, the negative was highlighted throughout last weekend, the third weekend of play this fall, as substitute referees blew a handful of significant calls, made many other questionable calls, and overall threw so many flags at the players and teams that the pace of play was severely disrupted. All of that came down as team owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell continued to stand firm against the contract demands of the permanent referees and kept them off the field as a result of the labor dispute.
Then, to end the game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football last night, the Keystone Cops refereeing crew made a call in the endzone that gave Seattle the winning touchdown as time expired — and immediately ranked as one of the most badly botched calls in the history of professional football.
Remarkably, after reviewing the play on Tuesday, the NFL came out and officially refused to utter a mea culpa on behalf of its replacement referees. In fact, the league upheld the call and is "holding firm" as the negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association continued today.
While Seattle fans were overjoyed, it wasn't just Packers players and fans who were stunned and outraged.
The condemnation of the entire stable of NFL constituences — fans, players, coaches, sports scribes and color commentators on TV, writers on the NFL's official website — seemed precipitately focused today on the debacle in Seattle and unified in calls for Goodell finally to bite the bullet and get the real officials back on the field ASAP. Even the President weighed in with a call to get rid of the substitute referees and resolve the labor dispute.
Many members of each of these constituencies feel that owners and Goodell may be dangerously taking the strength of the NFL franchise and the fealty of fans for granted and be bringing the enterprise perilously close to permanent damage.
Sponsoring brands haven't weighed in publicly so far. But arguably the dispute with officials already has hurt the NFL's own brand, and if the dispute is allowed to go on much longer, affecting fan sentiment and interest in the games in a significant way, advertisers will be forced to re-evaluate the NFL as well.
For now, there remains a glowing residue of confidence in and goodwill about the NFL among advertisers and most fans, in part demonstrated by continued strong ratings for al the games, including NBC's Sunday Night Football. Last weekend, it drew more viewers even than ABC's Emmy Awards telecast.
The debacle is unfolding as the league and TV telecasts also have been paying frequent and continuing tributes to Steve Sabol, the scion of the founder of NFL Films who helped make the enterprise into such a powerful marketing tool for the NFL, its teams and players before he died of brain cancer on Sept. 18.
NFL Films has been the unique story of unequaled synergies between a creative media force and a popular sport, and one of the sport's greatest branding platforms. Sabol's leadership as NFL Films' president was key to both his company and professional football as they grew over the last quarter-century.
Sabol will always be missed. But the substitute refs? They can't be gone soon enough.