Bert Bell was the NFL commissioner who uttered the immortal line about pro football parity: "On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team."
Roger Goodell is the NFL commissioner who has seen this come home to roost, and it's not a good thing. The episode some are calling "Clueless in Seattle" makes it clear that the NFL's lost its battle with its referees. The lockout has to end, and it has to end soon.
You can go elsewhere for micro-dissection of the last-second end zone call that gave Seattle a 14-12 win over Green Bay in front of a home crowd and the big "Monday Night Football" TV audience. I'll leave the call to speak for itself (although, as the last dyed-in-the-wool opponent of instant replay, I can't help but note the irony here--the God-awful call wasn't reviewable under NFL rules).
What I want to talk about is how this incident affects the NFL's very essence. The multi-billion dollar industry that is pro football (and the massive TV audience that's a part of that) relies on one underlying belief: the game itself is a fair competition.
Now, the belief is shattered. Who can say what'll happen next? We're seeing players and coaches griping about the good calls, because they've lost faith. It's like when the wimpy substitute teacher walks into the unruly classroom. Once you've lost the room, you're screwed.
The NFL takes its image seriously. Very seriously. The "No Fun League" worries about what kind of baseball cap Alex Smith wears and once told 49er coach Mike Nolan he couldn't wear a coat and tie on the sideline. Yet the lords of the sport have been willing to gamble with the very foundation of their game.
Speaking of gambling, it's often been said that the reason pro sports organizations put so much emphasis on enforcing rules against gambling by players and coaches is that wagering raises questions about the integrity of the game. Back in the 1960's, the NFL even suspended one of its biggest stars, Packers running back Paul Hornung, for an entire season for gambling on NFL games, though there was no evidence that Hornung tried to throw any games. With all due respect, chronically-inept officiating is no better for the integrity of the sport.
I'm not alone in this line of thinking. No less a fan of the NFL than Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden said today, "The way it's going now--that's not NFL football." And a far more damning comment from Madden: "You have no confidence in the outcome of the game."
Enough. If the NFL gives a damn about itself as a sport and not just a spectacle, it has to fix this. John Madden is calling on the owners themselves to step in, and as stewards of a tradition, they need to do exactly that. Soon.