Poor officiating has come to define the NFL. Despite the fact that the league is at its peak from a popularity and revenue standpoint, and despite the fact that it has more eyes on it now than ever before, it just can't figure out a way to correct its officiating problem. And yes, a problem exists.
Sunday was really the perfect example of this. The Detroit Lions lost a thrilling playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys, yet the only thing worth talking about at this point is the pathetic display of officiating. Lions fans -- myself included -- will tell you that the officials cost them the game. Cowboys fans will tell you the officiating was equally bad after Dallas was on the wrong end of some questionable calls in the first half. I think the one thing we can all agree on is that the officiating should not have become the story, yet that's exactly what happened.
Is a big conspiracy that involved the NFL favoring a more popular team at fault here? Uh, no. It's not as if Roger Goodell or Dean Blandino made a call down to the officials in between the flag being thrown and picked up on that infamous pass interference no-call and decided that was the perfect time to execute "OPERATION: COWBOYS MUST ADVANCE" or something like that. That's not how this works, and no, it's not as if either of them made it known before the game that the Cowboys must advance at all costs.
So, is this instead a conspiracy involving the specific officials? In true Tim Donaghy fashion, did one or more of them rig the game because they had money on the Cowboys? Given what happened years ago in the NBA, I suppose we can't 100 percent rule out this theory, but it's unlikely. There could definitely be bias for the home team involved in Sunday's game considering how often the officials were booed, and perhaps they were swayed by the home crowd. But a big game-fixing scandal? I don't believe NFL officials would be smart enough to conceal a game-fixing operation, and I certainly don't believe they would be competent enough to execute it properly.
This really leads me to my main point. There is an alarming amount of incompetence in NFL officiating, yet the league has done virtually nothing to address it. You could really say the same for every other sport where officials play a major role. And I get it -- it's tough for human beings to make judgment calls in real speed with freakish athletes running around them. It's not an enviable job by any means, and especially in the NFL, officials are put in a position to fail more often than not. There are too many rules, the rulebook is overly complicated and with the technology we have available, even the smallest mistake becomes obvious after enough slow-motion replays.
But the problem here is that the NFL puts up with this incompetence and does nothing to fix it. NFL officials have become household names over the years for their blatant blown calls, but nothing happens to them publicly. If an NFL player even wears the wrong-colored socks, he receives a fine. And those fines get even bigger when one player flying at a high speed hits another player flying at a high speed in the wrong part of the body because of a split-second decision or change in motion. The point is that players are fined or even suspended by the league for every little mistake they make, and if they don't perform at the level necessary, they will ultimately be cut by their team. But officials are allowed to keep their jobs despite racking up blown call after blown call over an extended period of time. The Pete Morellis, Jerome Bogers, Jeff Triplettes and Ed Hochulis of the world have ruined important NFL games for years, yet they're still in the exact same jobs.
There's no perfect solution to this officiating problem, but the NFL could at least try to put some effort into fixing it. Officials should spend as much time training as players do, and they should be full-time employees, not school principals who just do this on the side. What's more, the NFL should embrace the technology it has available for all calls. Challenges and official reviews shouldn't be limited; if anything potentially incorrect occurs because of an official, technology should be able to correct it. I get that this could slow down games even more than they already are, but with all of the resources it has available, the NFL should be able to implement a near-instantaneous system where calls can be corrected within seconds of them being made.
The problem with the game of football is that there are always going to be judgment calls that fans of different teams see differently depending on their rooting interests. That's just the way it is, and that's not something that can be corrected. However, there's no excuse for letting an NFL playoff game be overshadowed by such incompetent officiating. The people responsible for letting this happen -- the officials on the field and those in charge of them -- should be disciplined just as players are for their actions on the field. Additionally, a new system needs to be put in place where blatantly wrong calls can be overturned regardless of the situation. If game-changing catches or fumbles can be overturned via review, then so should game-changing penalties.
At the end of the day, part of me thinks that the NFL just enjoys the controversy that comes along with their horrendous officiating. Why else would the league continue to ignore such a massive problem? It's not like they're short on funding and don't have the resources to dedicate to improving officiating. And it's not like they couldn't take major steps toward simplifying the rulebook and make officials' jobs easier in the process. They just refuse to do so. Maybe it's arrogance because the NFL knows how popular it is even with poor officiating, but if they continue to ignore this issue, more and more fans are going to be turned off to the point where they no longer feel the need to dedicate their time and money to watching games. I know I'm becoming more and more disenchanted with the NFL as a whole because of their poor officiating, and every person has their breaking point. I'm not quite sure if I've reached mine after what I witnessed on Sunday, but it's becoming harder and harder to spend so much time on a league that is so poorly run.
I guess whether you think corruption or pure incompetence is to blame, the point remains the same: The NFL has to make some serious changes going forward. It cannot continue to ignore its officiating problem with so much at stake to so many people. This is a billion-dollar sport, yet the NFL treats officiating like it has a budget of a few thousand dollars. That big of a gap can't exist, and unless the NFL makes a serious attempt to improve the quality of its officiating, the league will continue to be defined by incompetence.