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By not fining Ryan Clark, the NFL damages its own Integrity

Almost a week has gone by, and Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Ryan Clark has escaped punishment from the NFL for the “blow to the head” hit he was penalized for committing against New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz.

The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE

Typically players receive a formal letter from the League within the week following the game just played announcing the league’s decision to impose a fine for one infraction or another.

The damage to the NFL’s integrity comes by its failure to issue a statement of any kind as to why it chose not to impose a fine for the very types of hits it claims it is trying to eliminate.

Instead, after an intensive two week investigation into Cramp-gate as perpetuated by Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals; an investigation that included trips to Pittsburgh by league officials to review Sanders’ medical records for signs of a history of cramps, the league imposed a fine of $15,000 on Sanders, and $35,000 on the Steelers for faking an injury.

NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson handed down the punishment stating: "……it reflects the commissioner's strong view that it is the responsibility of the club to insure that its players are familiar with and in compliance with the league's competitive rules."

The truth of the matter is the NFL knows its referee was wrong to throw the flag, but lacks the integrity to admit such a fact.

Roger Goodell and the NFL want the fans of professional football to believe that their stewardship of the sport that has grown into a $9 billion operation is in good hands. That the players and the teams have integrity; that the quality of competition is not being jeopardized by fakery or non-compliance with the rules of the game. He wants us to believe that under his stewardship, the NFL will continue to grow, both in term of popularity, and also in terms of its presence on the world stage.

For the NFL to continue to grow; for it to capture the interest and loyalty of new fans whose money will be added to the billions it already collects, the NFL has to provide a product that the consumer believes is legitimate. The consumer has to believe that the weekly contests between the teams and the outcomes millions of people spend billions to watch will be decided by the team with the better skill, and/or the most luck.

By failing to fine Ryan Clark, the NFL is admitting by its silence that its referee was wrong. But the deafening silence coming out of the league office in terms of the performance of its referees isn’t an acknowledgement of its referee’s mistake, and by failing to acknowledge its mistake, the NFL is in fact condoning it.

The league was quick to announce its investigation into Cramp-gate as public proof that it would not condone players faking an injury. But by not fining Ryan Clark for the hit he was penalized for, the NFL condoned a call that provided the Giants a second set of downs which they used to tie the game. Any reasonable person watching that game could come to the conclusion that the referee gave the Giants seven of the 20 points they managed to score against the Steelers.

The players (and coaches and collectively the teams) are the participants in the NFL. They are not the game of football itself; that is the organization calling itself the NFL and by extension its employees on the field, the referees. The NFL and its referees embody the structure, the framework of the game in which the two opposing teams participate. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has ordained himself the "guardian of the Shield". The NFL organizes the contests and through its referees monitors both teams’ adherence to the "competitive rules" and guidelines of the game for the sake of the integrity of the game.

When a player or players perform an act that violates one of the rules of the game, the referees penalize them in order to restore order and fairness to the contest. Just as in NASCAR, where limits are placed on what the individual race teams are allowed to do to the mechanical parts of their cars in order to make the race about the skill of the driver, and not the cars themselves, there are rules in the game of football to govern what acts are permissible or not so as to make the game a contest of which players and teams can perform within the rules better than the other.

But games are now at risk of being decided by the performance of the referees. A performance level that is reaching ever lower levels of quality as each week goes by and is coming closer and closer to preventing players like Ryan Clark from even functioning on the field.

When the league continues to maintain total silence on the abysmal way its referees, its on-the-field "guardians of the shield", conduct their enforcement of the rules then such silence gives lie to the legitimacy of the NFL to impose a standard of conduct on players and teams in terms of faking injuries.

Whether Sanders was faking or not is immaterial. The NFL has no right to judge whether players are in "…compliance with the league’s competitive rules" when the NFL won’t hold itself to the same standard; the NFL ref who threw the flag on Ryan Clark was faking an awareness of what truly happened during that play and there has been nothing but silence from the league about it.

And if the NFL continues to ignore the quality of work conducted by its referees to the point where it is by such poor work games are lost, and thus a team’s ability to qualify for the post-season, then the integrity of the NFL itself will be as real as Emmanuel Sanders leg cramp.