Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, has spent his entire term saying he only wanted what was best for the sport. Monday's Packers vs. Seahawks game destroyed much of that goodwill.
John Lok/The Seattle Times/AP
Without question, it was drama worthy of the great Greek playwrights. And without question, it was tragedy of the highest order – at least by the meager measure of fair play in a game of grown men wearing sparkly skin-tight pants.
On Monday night, what many had been fearing finally came to pass. Replacement officials, now in their third week of filling in for the regulars whom the National Football League has locked out in a labor dispute, at last directly determined the outcome of a game. And by all appearances, they got it wrong.
The NFL released a statement Tuesday backing the decision on the field Monday night: that a Seattle receiver and a Green Bay defender caught the final pass of the game simultaneously, and that, by rule, a simultaneous catch goes to the receiver. The referee ruled it a touchdown, giving Seattle a 14-12 win.
Not surprisingly, the NFL statement discounts the fact that, to virtually every human being from Oslo to Oshkosh, Wis., the Packer defender seemingly had the ball clutched tightly to his chest while the Seahawk receiver was clinging on with the desperation of a hound on Mitt Romney's roof rack. True, they both had their hands on the ball simultaneously. But did the Seahawk have possession as the NFL suggests?
The world begs to differ. And therein lies the tragedy.
In truth, the main character in Monday night's Oedipus Wrecks was not even present.
Yes, the Packers would appear to be the protagonists – a team that fought with no small amount of courage against a Seahawk defense that at times seemed too brutal for basic cable. At least "The Tudors" used an executioner. By the end of the Seahawks' eight-sack first half, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers probably would have envied such a tidy end.
He and his teammates battled back to what was, it seemed, a hard-fought and well deserved win. But Monday night was not really about them.
Nor was it about the replacement officials – that star-crossed chorus that just can't help but flub its lines performance after performance. After all, if we knew this was coming, why should we be shocked?
No, there is no surprise in a bunch of essentially minor league officials being overwhelmed by major league responsibilities. If they were better officials, they wouldn't have been available.
Add to that the obvious fact that this is only their third week on the job, and the prospects were never good. If Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III need a year to acclimate to the speed and complexity of the NFL – and they have been working their entire lives to get to this point – how is it rational to expect dozens of part-timers dragged from the fields of St. Xavier and Marian (Ind.) Universities to keep pace?
In fact, the final call Monday was only the apotheosis of their inadequacy. The game was riddled with poor decisions at crucial moments – and it came at the end of a weekend filled with games riddled with questionable decisions at crucial moments.
The true tragic hero of Monday night was, of course, Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL's 31-headed hydra who apparently must daily remind his 31 team owners that they are, in fact, Overlords of the Universe. Because that is what this is all about, really. Sophocles would have called it hubris. And, had he been a fan of Monday Night Football, he would have invented a game precisely like the one between the Packers and Seahawks to bring about Goodell's downfall.
After all, like all classic heroes of great tragedy, Goodell's is of his own making. He and his owners have built a league of astonishing economic power and cultural importance. In the American sporting landscape, there is the NFL, and then there is everything else. The NFL is, in the truest sense of the term, an American sporting empire.
And Goodell has been its knight in shining armor. Since taking the office, his one suitably chivalrous refrain has been: Protect the shield. To the layman, this means that his job is to protect the integrity and dignity of the league – to ensure that the league's pointy little red, white, and blue shield of a football set amid eight stars is seen as impeccable in all respects.
This has meant dress codes telling players what wristbands they can and can't wear. This has meant mounting fines and suspensions for players who recklessly endanger the health of others. This has meant that instant-replay officials exasperatingly review every touchdown and turnover to ensure the call on the field is correct.
So now, when league officiating is being exposed as only a few steps from farce, the Emperor appears to be strolling through his New York offices with no clothes.
In truth, there's not much difference between what's going on in the NFL and what was going on during the recent teachers' strike in Chicago. The mayor wanted accountability and fresh blood. The teachers didn't. Eventually, as pressure mounted, they found a compromise – because they knew they must.
Goodell and his owners want accountability (the ability to bench bad refs) and new blood (the ability to hire an extra crew). The refs don't. But instead of finding compromise, the NFL seems to believe that it lives in its own universe, as all emperors do. It thinks that it has such enormous leverage that it can break the referees union.
Perhaps it can, but with every passing week, it becomes more apparent that, to the 31 owners of the NFL and their appointed deputy, protecting the shield in this case takes a back seat to a bare-knuckled labor brawl.
On Monday, that decision damaged the playoff hopes of the Green Bay Packers – only time will tell how much.
In the long run, however, it has caused far greater damage to Goodell and his employers. On Monday, they lost – and must now begin to rebuild – that trust they sought to forge with fans and players who put their faith in the promise of that shield: that, above all, the good of the game came first.