ATLANTA — The job has its benefits, starting with the current annual salary of $35 million a year. The job — or at least the person holding it — has its critics, and it always has.
“Enjoy the game,” Pete Rozelle, then the NFL's commissioner, told a group of journalists before one Super Bowl. “And then you can go back to knocking me again.”
Two steps away from Rozelle, following John Tagliabue, Roger Goodell is easily knocked, not always deservedly.
Problems? There is a dearth of minority coaches. Concussions seem an inevitable part of pro football. (The New York Times appears determined to eliminate the sport once and for all.) Players are seen in videos punching or kicking women. Colin Kaepernick remains not only unemployed but unwanted.
Yet all of that is incidental compared to the officiating error during the Rams-Saints NFC Championship game.
Life is unfair. Sports, to the contrary, are supposed to be fair. You break a rule, you get penalized (unlike what’s going on in government). Except when Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed a blatant interference penalty with a helmet-to-helmet hit on the Saints' Tommylee Lewis that not only was apparent but, according to Robey-Coleman, intentional — and there was no penalty.
Goodell conveniently had not addressed the failure to call a penalty. Even though 30 million people had seen it clearly in high definition. Even though Saints coach Sean Payton insisted that the officials had blown the call. Even though it perhaps cost New Orleans a chance to be in the Super Bowl. (The Saints did get the ball in overtime, but Drew Brees was intercepted.)
For years, the commissioner’s message, the so-called state of the league, was given on the Friday before the game. But in Goodell’s brave new world it was moved to Wednesday, for one reason or the other. Goodell, stylishly without a tie, told us that it will be a long while until an NFL team is based in London. That he has no idea where the fleeing Oakland-Las Vegas Raiders will play in 2019, but for sure it’s not going to be San Diego and, yes, he understands why fans of the Saints are furious.
As we’ve become all too aware, the non-pass interference against Robey-Coleman was a judgment call and judgment calls are non-reviewable. But after that botch, they soon may be. The NFL is based on integrity, as is every sports league. How much integrity is there in not responding to the obvious?
"We understand the frustration of the fans," Goodell told the media from the Georgia World Congress Center. "We talked to Coach Payton, the team, the players. We understand the frustration that they feel right now. And we certainly want to address them.
"Whenever officiating is part of any kind of discussion post-game, it's never a good outcome for us ... but we also know that our officials are human. We also know they are officiating a game in which they often have to make snap decisions under difficult circumstances. And they're not going to get it right every time. As I say, they're human.”
Sixty years ago after a questionable call cost UCLA a game, and there was an uproar, the Bruins coach at the time, Henry “Red” Sanders pointed out, “When my team makes as few mistakes as the officials, we’ll win every game.”
But when the officials make a mistake like the one in New Orleans, you probably lose the one game that counts.
“We have worked very hard to bring technology in to try and make sure we can do whatever's possible to address those issues,” Goodell said, explaining why instant replay can’t always be effective. “But technology's not going to solve all those issues. The game is not officiated by robots."
The natural and quite unfair comment would be, “No, it’s officiated by idiots.”
Goodell said the NFL is never opposed to improvement.
“We have made changes to our rules every year,” he said. “We try to get better, and I think that has been very effective. I think the game has never been healthier. The game has never been officiated at this level.”
OK, Roger. Now what are you going to do with the Raiders?