Online culture being what it is, public mistakes never really go away these days. They’re repeated endlessly on social media, then archived for the ages on YouTube and other instantly available internet platforms.
But even without the collective memory of cyberspace, the colossal misjudgement of NFL referees in Sunday’s playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams was already destined to live in infamy among the faithful of Who Dat Nation. It could very well have been the decisive factor in the Saints’ 26-23 loss to the Rams, a defeat that robbed the New Orleans franchise of a chance to compete for a second time in the Super Bowl.
Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman should have been penalized for pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact after a play involving New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis during the high-stakes contest in the Superdome. Both of the players fully expected that referees would penalize Robey-Coleman, as did thousands of Saints fans who saw the violations in billboard-wide living color on the dome’s Jumbotron — and on TV screens and smartphones across the nation.
But the refs opted to do nothing, an oversight officials later acknowledged to infuriated Saints coach Sean Payton. “We messed it up,” Payton quoted Al Riveron, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, as saying in response to Payton’s complaint after the game.
There’s a lot of cynicism in the country right now about the powers that be creating rigged outcomes, but professional sports is supposed to be a respite from all that, with winners and losers ordained by a clear and uniformly enforced set of rules.
Sunday’s footage of the controversial interaction between Robey-Coleman and Lewis, vivid proof of the league’s ineptness, is now a national meme for mismanagement, just another apparent reminder that the folks in charge of running things are asleep at the wheel.
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The footage itself, many fans reasonably assumed, would tell referees what obviously needed to be done. The NFL adopted a limited instant replay system in 1986, and the system in place began in 1999, allowing the opportunity to challenge certain calls of plays. But because of the rules now in force, what happened between Robey-Coleman and Lewis Sunday “in not a reviewable play,” head referee Bill Vonovich said after the game.
Payton, who’s on the NFL committee that governs rules of play, said he hopes to raise the issue before the panel. “We all want to get it right, right? We’ve got plenty of technology to speed things up,” he said Sunday. “I hope no other team has to lose a game like we lost that one today.”
Thanks to its post-Katrina struggles with Uncle Sam, New Orleans became a poster child for the consequences of bureaucratic bungling. Forgive us if we’re a little tired of being the guinea pig while national institutions sort out how to get it right the next time.