Officiating was another hot topic in the 2016 NFL season. Confusion over what defines a catch continues to plague the league, while it seems every big game this season had at least one significant officiating controversy.
The Detroit Lions, per usual, were no stranger to this. Their 17-penalty game against the Titans was one of the most unusual officiated games I’ve personally witnessed, and, again, their one playoff game was mired in controversy.
Then there was Tuesday’s story about Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett calling out the Green Bay Packers for getting away with holding on offense all of the time, something Lions fans have claimed for years now. It feels like a little vindication for fans that have been crying foul for years, but it brings up an interesting question.
Do you believe there is an officiating conspiracy in the NFL?
My answer: I do not. I think people underestimate just how difficult officiating is. They don’t get the benefit of perfect camera angles we do, nor are they able to consult replay for the majority of their decisions. That is why I have constantly advocated for simply taking some of the power away from the flawed officials by reducing the effect of their calls (ie: making pass interference a 15-yard penalty instead of a spot foul or removing "automatic first down" stipulations).
As for certain players or teams getting an advantage over others, I just don’t believe that is purposely happening in the NFL. I don’t think you see a real trend in certain teams getting advantages, though admittedly that is a very hard thing to truly quantify. I am willing to admit that officials may have unconscious biases, as pointed out in FiveThiryEight’s interesting article about officiating near the sidelines. And I’d even be willing to take that a step further by admitting that the same kind of effect could be giving certain players or teams an unintended advantage.
However, I do not buy into any theories that referees or officials are purposely giving a team an advantage. While the success of certain teams does benefit the league more than others, that can change very quickly. A team like the Saints went from being one of the most forgotten franchises to one of the most popular with a little bit of success in the 2000s. I think the league can make any team in the NFL marketable and profitable, therefore making the motive of favoritism moot.
Of course, there’s also one major thing missing from an NFL officiating conspiracy: Any hard evidence at all.