The NFL — the Not Fair League, if you happen to be a Saints fan — has a problem. Well, actually, the Not Fair League has several problems.

Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland

There are solutions, fairly easy solutions.

Let’s take the biggest problem first. One of the two most important games of the season to date was decided by an officiating decision that was blatantly wrong — positively stunningly wrong.

You saw it. Everybody saw it. The Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis was not just interfered with — he was maimed on a helmet-to-helmet hit that occurred a split second before Drew Brees’ pass arrived.

“A bang-bang play, a judgment call,” the referee called it. But it wasn’t bang-bang. It wasn’t nearly that close.

It was a judgment call, horrible judgment. And judgment calls are not reviewable on instant replay.

I have a solution that would work. Stay with me. The NFL uses seven officials. Big-time college football uses eight. The NFL game is faster, so why should the NFL use fewer officials? Answer: It shouldn’t.

But adding another official on the field would not help, at least not enough. So add another official in the press box. Call him the eye in the sky. Give him a monitor and a buzzer. Any time he sees a judgment call clearly missed — such as the one that cheated the Saints — he buzzes down to the referee.

“Hey, we blew that one, it wasn’t even close,” he says.

The referee then takes a quick look — wouldn’t take but one — and reverses the call.

The press box official’s job would not be to review every close call. His job would be to prevent disasters such as we saw in the Superdome. He would be football’s version of spell check, a reporter’s version of an editor. His job would be to fix blatant mistakes. This is do-able.

Now then, next problem — and I can’t believe this even needs to be addressed. All the officials involved in the missed call at New Orleans have one thing in common. That is, they live in — or near — Los Angeles.

Referee Bill Vinovich is from Newport Beach, about 40 miles from L.A. Side judge Gary Cavaletto, who was a few feet from Lewis and made the call, lives in Santa Barbara, also in the Los Angeles area. Down judge Patrick Turner, who was supposed to follow Lewis on the play and should have had a good look, is from the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood. Back judge Todd Prukop lives is Mission Viejo.

This. Should. Not. Happen.

Here’s the deal: All four of those guys may be the fairest-minded people in the world, although the evidence is otherwise. Just because they live near Los Angeles doesn’t make them Rams fans. It doesn’t mean they are not, either. The perception is the problem, a big problem.

The league says it bases playoffs assignments on performance during the season. So if the largely southern California group graded best, send them to the game that doesn’t involve a southern California team. In this case, it would have been New England-Kansas City. And, if it’s the Super Bowl, don’t send them at all.

It just stands to reason. We’ve had many Mississippi residents who have been SEC officials. But those guys are never assigned to Mississippi State or Ole Miss games. That’s as it should be.

A third problem is even easier to solve. Since the game eight days ago, the NFL has had no comment — other than admitting to Saints coach Sean Payton it blew the call and assessing the Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman a $26,739 fine.

There has been no public apology, no announced penalty for offending officials, no concern shown at all about what might have been the most blatantly blown judgment call in playoffs history.

Solution: Come clean. Say publicly you blew it. And that you regret it. Say you are looking at ways to prevent it from happening again. Explain why you assigned four southern California officials to a do-or-die game involving the Los Angeles Rams.

And then: Don’t do it again.

Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at


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