When it comes to mistakes routinely made by game officials, the NFL is less transparent than construction paper. Fearful of the potential negative impact of admitting what is often obvious, the NFL unreasonably protects officials by never acknowledging their blunders publicly.
This refusal to be candid regarding bad calls hurts the league in various ways. Among other things, it invites the tin-foil hat crowd to think that the league wants certain teams to win, and other teams to lose. Although I’ll never believe that happens (indeed, it would be nearly impossible to pull it off seamlessly and even harder to keep someone from blabbing about it in off-the-record discussions, a tell-all book, and/or a deathbed confession), people who are wired to presume the worst will, in the absence of a reasonable, clear, and cogent explanation to the contrary.
So here’s the solution: The NFL needs to hire someone who will serve capably as a spokesperson for officiating matters, available to radio shows, TV, podcasts, etc. and willing to face tough questions and to answer them in a way that inspires confidence in the game.
When, for example, officials throw a flag for an illegal hit to the head of a defenseless receiver and broadcasters mistakenly rail against the fact that the defender was simply trying to catch the ball, the officiating spokesperson needs to be able to say, calmly and persuasively, that intent doesn’t matter when a defenseless receiver is struck in the head or neck area. When, for example, the officials make a mistake, the officiating spokesperson needs to admit that a mistake was made, explain how and why it happened, and move on.
The league used to have something like an officiating spokesperson when Mike Pereira and, after Carl Johnson, Dean Blandino served as the V.P. of officiating. Pereira and Blandino routinely appeared on NFL Network, and often elsewhere, to discuss candidly the calls that drive fan and media discussion in various formats. Al Riveron isn’t available nearly as frequently; instead, he produces periodic, broad-brush social-media videos to explain specific calls of interest, along with a weekly officiating video for the media that rarely addresses the most controversial decisions, highlighting instead examples of proper rules application that involved no mistakes and created no uproar.
The current uproar in the aftermath of Lions-Packers demonstrates how important it is for the league to have someone who can quickly mobilize for day-after interviews, not to spin but to embrace the kind of candid truth that allows fans to realize that, yes, mistakes happen and that, no, it doesn’t mean that the league office instructed the officials that it would be preferred for Green Bay to win the game.