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Posted at 09:24 AM ET, 09/26/2012

NFL, Roger Goodell have their image on the line with referees lockout

Anger gave way to acceptance of the controversial call that ended the Green Bay Packers’ game Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks, if only until the next egregious error by replacement referees.

For once, there was a unanimity of opinion on a controversial topic: Get the regular guys back now and the blame for putting inadequately prepared guys on the field while regular refs are locked out lies with Commissioner Roger Goodell and his “NFL owner-masters,” as the Post’s Sally Jenkins calls them.

From Walter Camp onward, every governor or commissioner of the game has understood that it’s his chief duty to control and shape the violence into an organized contest. Both sides share blame for the prolonged labor dispute, but the failure to have an adequate plan in the meantime rests in only one place: the commissioner’s office. Goodell failed in his main responsibility. He is the keeper of the rules. If this is not his job, then what is it?

The replacement-refs issue, though, goes far beyond merely apportioning blame. There’s a sense that this could be a tipping point, that viewers may be driven away from the game, which could spiral into irrelevance. Bill Barnwell writes on Grantland that “the easiest way to get people to stop watching is to make them think that the games they're watching are illegitimate and irrelevant. With the continued employment of replacement referees, that is the exact path the NFL's games are on.”

The New York Post took the biggest of the roundhouse shots coming at the league, with a cover illustration of a referee with a white cane and guide dog and the headlines: “Oh say can’t you see? Blind refs ruining America’s game.”

With President Obama, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and seemingly every other candidate for political office (as well as Bill Clinton) calling for an end for the lockout that began in June, there’s a sense that, however inelegantly the Post put it, the game is being ruined. An image is only as strong as the product behind it. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News asks and answers: “You want to know when legitimate sports become something less? When the fans watching them, especially the ones paying to watch, walk away thinking the result wasn’t on the level.” Yahoo’s Mike Silver wonders if the NFL could, no matter how inconceivable it may seem, become the new boxing:

After peaking during Muhammad Ali’s heyday in the ’70s, boxing has largely become a fringe sport over the past two decades for two primary reasons: The obvious brutality and toll it takes upon the men who compete; and the fishy decisions that have engendered a pronounced lack of faith in the integrity of the matches.
Given the growing concern surrounding head trauma and its haunting connection, perceived or proven, to the demise of so many gridiron warriors, the NFL has a serious health-and-safety issue to confront. And if the fans start to perceive the officiating to be as untrustworthy as that of ringside scorecards, the league will have an equally daunting problem on its hands.

The NFL is not the same institution it used to be and you can blame that on a new breed of owner that Goodell, who grew up working for Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, grew up working with. Dave Goldberg, who covered the NFL for 30 years for the Associated Press, noted Monday night on Twitter that he “NEVER saw anything close to this embarrassing. Usually [a] sane owner [like the Pittsburgh Steelers’] Dan Rooney stepped in. [H]e's [ambassador to] Ireland now.”

The New York Times’ Judy Battista writes that “those close to Goodell say he is concerned about the mistakes being made game after game” and “is in the difficult position of balancing the interests of his constituents.” His reputation is, as a commissioner’s should be, on the line here.

That is what the N.F.L. has on its hands now, the ugly perception that its commissioner is willing to sacrifice the quality and integrity of the competition as long as the bottom line is favorable. The hope among some owners Tuesday was that a deal could be struck by the end of this week or early next week. Goodell may be in a tough spot now, trying to corral strong-willed owners whose positions are not always in step. But he will have a much more difficult time restoring the shine to his — and the league’s — image if he fails.

There will be another game hot on the heels of Monday’s controversy, with the Cleveland Browns playing the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night. Can the league take another fiasco of the magnitude of what occurred Monday? At least both sides continue to negotiate. The latest round of talks, Albert Breer of the NFL Network reports, went past midnight, “with hard-line owners becoming more involved [and the] mediator working to keep things on track.”

Follow us: @CindyBoren | @MattBrooksWP

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By  |  09:24 AM ET, 09/26/2012

 
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