The NFL Has Become Unwatchable

I was a pro football fan as a boy back in the 1960s, when our local TV station in South Dakota featured Chicago Bears and, later, Green Bay Packers games. After that, for a long time I rarely watched a pro football game. This year, not being as busy as in the past, I have seen more NFL games than in any recent season. Yesterday I was home nursing a cold, and caught both the Vikings-Falcons game and the Patriots-Broncos game.

Based on this year’s experience, I have concluded that penalties, along with endless video reviews of plays, have made the game just about impossible to watch. After every big play, you wait for the flag. More often than not, it seems, it comes. While some penalties are obvious, more often they appear to be called randomly, especially on important plays. It is frequently impossible to say what distinguishes a particular hold, pass interference or unnecessary roughness from similar conduct that occurred a few plays earlier or later. Given the lack of any apparent pattern in what constitutes a penalty, it is tempting to infer that referees insert them periodically to mold the flow of the game in a predetermined direction.

“Instant” replay–would that it were so!–strives to make football refereeing scientific, but in fact just adds another layer of frustration and delay. While some patently wrong calls are overturned, replay does nothing to address the problem of far too many penalties being called, since penalty calls generally are not reviewable. And in any event, in a game as chaotic as football, it is doubtful whether the key penalties, which are usually judgment calls, could ever be made fully consistent.

So I have a modest proposal: since the officials appear to determine the outcome of most close NFL games, the league, rather than actually playing the games, should just ask the officials who won. That would save a lot of trouble, and think of the injuries that would be avoided!

The NFL is, of course, riding high these days. Still, there are murmurs of discontent. I suspect that I am not entirely untypical in watching more pro football than ever, while at the same time decreeing it unwatchable. While that paradox is easy to ridicule, I think the NFL will be in trouble, one of these days, if it doesn’t figure out a way to make its officiating both less flagrantly inconsistent and less intrusive into the flow of the game.