Bob Ford: Business is the real name of the NFL's game

Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL reached an agreement with the referees late Wednesday night.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL reached an agreement with the referees late Wednesday night. (BILL KOSTROUN / AP)
Posted: September 28, 2012

The NFL softened its hard stance on the contract squabble with the regular referees not because the league was in any danger of losing the battle if it held out longer, but because the whole mess was about to become bad for business.

Give the NFL this much: It understands business.

When concussions became a major topic and there was the prospect of fighting enormous lawsuits from former players somewhere down the road, the league turned cartwheels on the player safety issue. That was the right thing to do, but it was also the smart business move.

When it became apparent that the New Orleans Saints were paying guys to hurt opponents, the NFL reacted like a scalded cat. It was the right reaction - or overreaction as they believe in New Orleans - but it came not because the league was that shocked, but because it likes its image to sponsors as a bastion of sportsmanship.

If there is even a sniff about gambling, or any acknowledgment by anyone in the game that such a thing as a point spread exists, the NFL swivels its great eye like Sauron. A former Eagles' employee, making a joke once about how tough it is in Philadelphia, told a reporter, "This is the kind of town where you don't just have to win, you have to cover." The league reacted as if he said the footballs were stuffed with cocaine. Integrity - having the public believe everything is on the level - is good for business. Keep the viewers on the couch and keep the television networks fighting to have the games on their channels.

So the settlement with the referees' union had to happen this week, because the NFL couldn't risk the possibility that its bad luck on the field would get worse. The replacement referees were horrible across the board, but those last two games - Sunday night's debacle that ended with Bill Belichick's attempted arm tackle of a ref, and Monday's Hail Mary that quickly became America's Holy Moley - made compromise the only option.

The league could live with a lot of tedious walking around by the referees as they sought desperately to invent a line of scrimmage. It could live with the recitation of the thin resumes that the replacements brought to the big-time. (Lance Easley, the side judge who peered into the scrum Monday night like a man trying to spot fish in a murky lake and then signaled a touchdown for Seattle, was working his first game above the junior-college level. He is also the president of the local officials' association back home . . . the basketball officials.)

All of that could have been endured a while longer, perhaps even for the length of the entire season if the regular referees didn't capitulate. If Ronald Reagan could replace the nation's air traffic controllers, then the NFL could certainly show its referees who was boss. The only difference, as it turned out, was that Reagan got lucky with the result of his gambit and the league did not.

What tore it was not just the fact that the outcome of a game was changed because Easley failed to pass the test to become a Division I official and was thus available for work over the weekend, but also that the team getting hosed was the Green Bay Packers. For whatever reason, maybe the lingering legacy of Vince Lombardi, maybe the quaint setting of the franchise, the Packers have more fans in this country than any other team. In a good year, the Cowboys, the natural choice of all front-runners, give them a go, but the Packers are the Notre Dame of the NFL. Their fans are everywhere.

If the same thing happened to the Chiefs in a Sunday afternoon game watched by no one, the lockout would probably still be in place. But the outrage that emanated from the same incident in a nationally-televised game (including outrage from Wisconsin's governor, who has been merrily breaking unions for several years now), well, that was going to be bad for business.

It was also bad for the league's ability to control the situation. Players and coaches took to posting their true feelings on Twitter - go ahead, fine me! - and the probability was that things weren't going to improve. Consider what would have happened if the touchdown call had been reversed in Seattle, with 68,000 live, breathing, angry fans believing their team had just gotten jobbed by a gang of Barney Fifes who don't know a clip from a clop. Hail Mary, indeed. The NFL would have needed a dozen novenas to prevent having one of its precious stadiums burned to the ground.

No, this thing had to end, even though the league doesn't like to take a loss, or even a tie. The regular refs, who said they wanted to improve the system for themselves and for all who will follow them, agreed to a payoff in the form of a ratification bonus. That made up for some of what they didn't get for their future brethren, but it will definitely spend for them.

In other words, it was good for business. And that, not football, is the real name of the game.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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