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HITCHINGS: Outrage at NFL may bring about change

Opinion Column: From the Nosebleeds

On Sunday, the New England Patriots claimed their sixth title under head coach Bill Belichick and 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, in a 13-3 win over the upstart Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Georgia. While the game remains the pinnacle of American sports celebration, the 2019 rendition left a lot to the imagination. Poor play on the field and poor management in the lead up to the game made the 2019 big game both the lowest-scoring in history, and the least-watched in a decade.

In an NFL season fueled by impressive play and dramatic storylines, from breakout Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and eventual league most valuable player Patrick Mahomes, to New York Giants rookie of the year sensation Saquon Barkley, there was no shortage of reason to watch professional football this year. 

Heading into the playoffs, there was a theme of a passing of the torch from the older generation of Brady, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, to the new generation of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, Mahomes and Rams play-caller Jared Goff.

The generational gap matchups were captivating, until the entire scape of the teams in the playoffs were outshone by an ancillary third party: the referees. 

With 1:45 left in the fourth quarter of a nail-biting 20-20 tie in the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and the Rams, NFL all-time passing leader Brees looked to do what he had done countless times over the course of his nearly 20-year-long career: throw a go-ahead touchdown pass. In front of 73,000 fans at New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Brees delivered a pass intended for Tommylee Lewis. Unfortunately for Brees, Lewis and Saints fans around the world, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman got there first. 

In what is being universally agreed upon as egregious defense (Robey-Coleman even said afterward he “whacked his ass”), Lewis was laid out, hit in the head, well before the ball arrived. A laundry list of penalties could have been assessed, but much to the dismay of the Saints locker room, front office and fan base, no flags were thrown. 

The pass would have given the Saints a first down in field goal territory with less than 90 seconds left, setting them up to run the clock out and attempt a short field goal to send them to the Super Bowl. Because of the no-call, they attempted the field goal on the next play, going up by 3 points but giving the ball back to the Rams, who tied the game up with 8 seconds left before winning on a field goal in overtime, sending the Rams to the Super Bowl instead. 

On Sunday, instead of gathering to watch the championship game of the 2018 NFL Season, thousands of Saints fans gathered in New Orleans to display their anger and protest the game they should have played in. During the week before the Super Bowl, Saints head coach Sean Payton was seen wearing a shirt with Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, depicted as a clown under his sweater. This symbol was waved proudly as the fans roared in their disapproval but celebrated their favorite team.

The no call, and subsequent protest gained so much attention it led to a comment from President Donald J. Trump, who agreed that, “he was not just interfered with, he was — he was really hit hard. Who really knows what would have happened in the end? But certainly they would’ve been in a very good position to have won that game. But it is what it is. It was a bad call.”

All this snowballed into a Super Bowl which many went into with a bad taste in their mouths. Most viewers with some sort of basic football knowledge understood that they were not watching the right Super Bowl Sunday night. By halftime the score was 3-0, Patriots. The first touchdown was not scored for either team until a 2-yard run by New England’s Sony Michel with 7 minutes left in the game, long after many had lost interest or changed the channel. 

The game ended the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history, Patriots with 13 points and Rams with 3, but the story around Super Bowl LII will not be from on the field. This game will be surrounded by "what if" moments for a long time. 

The play on the field, along with its surrounding controversy, resulted in the lowest viewership in a decade for the big game. After a year with so much to tune into, the NFL has shot itself in the foot with the way this Super Bowl controversy was handled. The no-call in New Orleans will live in infamy until a rule change is made and beyond. While Saints fans may never extend an olive branch, they may find some solace in knowing football will become a better game because of them. 

With other sports cleaning up their rulebooks and expanding on video replay, it seems like the NFL is moving in reverse by not taking care of no-calls like in the Rams-Saints game. If this incident leads to rule changes, fans will take it as a sacrifice for a cleaner game. If not, it will be a hit, and subsequently a boring, low-rated Super Bowl that lives in infamy for a long time. 

T.J. Hitchings is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies, with a concentration in sports media. His column, “From the Nosebleeds,” runs on alternate Thursdays.


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