After that bizarre do-over in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s AFC Championship, a move that gave Patrick Mahomes a Mulligan to try to convert third and nine, we posted a one-word message on Twitter.
It was tongue in cheek. I don’t actually believe the NFL is rigged. More specifically, I don’t believe the NFL rigs games. First, the NFL doesn’t care who wins or loses games. It just doesn’t. Second, the NFL wouldn’t be able to pull off rigging games — and wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet.
Yes, the Commissioner has said he roots for the team that’s trailing in a given game. And it’s hard not to wonder whether a team that is behind by multiple scores sometimes gets an unspoken opportunity to narrow the gap, like the Bucs did when trying to wipe out a 13-point deficit against the Saints — and when blatant holding by tackle Donovan Smith was being ignored on every play.
Still, outcomes aren’t predetermined. They just aren’t.
The tweet was a reflection of the reaction from many when something weird happens. And that reaction has been legitimized by the events of the past five years.
The 2018 legalization of sports wagering, coupled with widespread advertising for gambling from which the NFL directly profits, makes people think, when strange things happen, that the fix is in. It doesn’t matter whether it’s wrong. What matters is the perception.
The NFL knows this. Indeed, it was one of the primary arguments made against legalized gambling when Delaware tried in 2009 to challenge the federal law that New Jersey eventually toppled in the U.S. Supreme Court nine years later.
“Normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalty flags and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving and game-fixing,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time.
He was right. While the explanation almost always is incompetence, the prevalence of legalized gambling — as advertised by the NFL and the various media outlets covering the game — will make plenty of people more likely to think something bad is happening.
It’s not. At least not from the perspective of the league trying to push the ultimate outcome of a game in one direction or another.
That said, various avenues are in place for a potential Tim Donaghy scandal. Put his name in the search box (or just click here). You’ll see the various times that we have mentioned issues and wrinkles that create an avenue for someone to try to influence the final score of a given game.
The NFL needs to identify and plug those gaps, sealing off any opportunity for someone to exercise that kind of discretion and influence. It’s among the various subjects addressed in the final section of Playmakers, a book of essays about the past 20 years in pro football — and about the direction in which the sport is going.
If the league doesn’t button certain things up (like many aspects of officiating), it’s going in a direction that has plenty of potential complications, for everyone who cares about the sport.