Regulations on the refs?

Varun Vishnubhotla, Sports Editor

With the National Football League’s (NFL) centennial season in the books, officiating controversies have made these past two seasons unforgettable, revealing that the NFL has made no attempts to solve the conspicuous officiating problems.

On a seemingly weekly basis from the tough 16-game season all the way to the Super Bowl, referees make some questionable calls, according to fans. As one of the most highly anticipated sports contests around the world, the Super Bowl should be an exciting battle between the top two teams in the league. But year after year, fans feel cheated as referees manage to make blunders, placing crucial games in the hands of the referees’ inconsistent calls.

The officiating outcry began as a side-effect of the infamous NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. In the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, with a chance to send the Rams home, head referee Bill Vinovich and back judge Pat Turner missed Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman’s early hit on Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. This play was a textbook definition of defensive pass interference (PI), and the missed call was game-changing, leading to a 4th down and Saints field goal instead of another touchdown chance. The Rams were then able to make a game-tying field goal before the end of the 4th quarter and win in overtime to advance to the Super Bowl. The call was so blatant that even Robey-Coleman of the Rams acknowledged the missed call.

“Yeah, that was a PI,” Robey-Coleman said after the game, cosigning Saints’ coach Sean Payton’s remarks and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s vocal disapproval of the call.

In an effort to alleviate the scrutiny from NFL fans, all 32 teams in the NFL and Goodell himself voted to make PI calls reviewable. The new rule supposedly gives coaches more control over the game by allowing them to challenge PI calls. However, the rule change seems like a means to calm fans rather than to implement change in the NFL.

Through Week 12 of the NFL’s regular season, 15 of 77 reviews for PI were overturned, but almost half of those reversals—seven of 15—were the result of second looks by replay officials. These referees look at call overturns prior to when coaches have the opportunity to challenge plays.

The NFL officiating controversy has led to off-the-field problems as well. According to a Forbes article on why the NFL’s viewership is declining, since the 2018-2019 season, the NFL is set to see its viewership decline by over 10% due to concerns of its “product.”

Although it cannot all be attributed to the four referees officiating the Saints vs. Rams game, surely their conduct after the game did not please fans.

“It’s a judgment call by the officials,” Vinovich said. “I personally have not seen the play.”

Vinovich’s response should serve as an example of what not to do. In a survey from fans, it was reported that fans were disgusted with the referees’ lack of remorse, causing them to not watch NFL games. This was evidenced by Saints fans’ silent protest of last year’s Super Bowl. After Vinovich’s comments after the game, NFL fans decided to boycott the Super Bowl, causing its viewership ratings to be the lowest of the decade. To save the reputation of all sporting leagues, referees should choose their words wisely.

Referees are human too. But their refusal to take accountability for their action rubs fans the wrong way. If the NFL’s behavior continues, they will be left throwing Hail Marys in a last-ditch effort to revitalize their fanbase.