For those who watched the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, I have empathy for your bruised jaw, which no doubt hit the floor at that baffling pass interference no-call at the end of regulation. It was a stunning ending to a good game, and it's a shame that the outcome may have turned on a referee whistle.
The people of New Orleans are incensed. Over 760,000 people signed a change.org petition to replay the last 1:49 of the game. The governor of Louisiana wrote an angry letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. A Saints fan purchased billboards all over Atlanta - the site of the Super Bowl this Sunday - reminding the city how the NFL "bleaux" it. And by now you've heard that a group of Saints' ticketholders is so upset, they're taking their grievance to court.
I asked Professor Mark Conrad of Fordham University to explain what's going on. Professor Conrad teaches in the Fordham University School of Law and Gabelli School of Business, and is the Director of the Gabelli Sports Business Concentration. Conrad is also the author of The Business of Sports: Off the Field, In the Office, On the News. He's been featured in this column before, and was generous enough to answer questions once again.
Here's Conrad's take on whether this lawsuit has merit, or whether the courts will make their own no-call on the move:
1. Generally, what does a ticket to a sporting event entitle the attendee to?
The devil is in the details. "The rights of the ticketholder are dictated by the terms of the agreement, often found in small print on the back of the ticket," Conrad points out. He goes on, "A ticket entitle[s] the fan to a limited series of rights, as the ticket holder is a "licensee": the right to attend the event, the right to sit at that seat, and the right to purchase food and beverages, for a fee." But what a fan does get may not be as legally significant as what he doesn't get. Conrad explains, "It's worth mentioning what rights a fan does not have: ownership of the seat, sitting in any other seat, becoming involved in the event other than cheering or booing, bringing items, including food, to the event, and significantly, limitation of the right to sue for negligently caused injuries." Fans aren't guaranteed a pleasant experience, a good game, or even a fair outcome.
2. What's the legal question in the case brought by the Saints fans?
Many people jokingly say, "I'll sue!" when faced with an outcome they don't like, but an actual lawsuit must have legal merit to proceed. "The fans are seeking to compel the NFL commissioner to order a replay of the match, or least the last minute or so after the non-call took place," Conrad says. The question is whether they have the legal legs to stand on. Conrad explains, "They are seeking to compel Commissioner Goodell to 'reverse the result' if an 'extraordinary act' or 'act outside the accepted tactics' occurs under the NFL rules. Rule 17, Section 2, Article 3 to be exact." At a hearing Monday, the NFL admitted the no-call was a mistake, but argued that Goodell was not required to invoke Rule 17, and asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.
3. What's the likely outcome?
Conrad believes the fan lawsuit faces an uphill battle. "The problem with their case is twofold: (1) they don't have the power to make that request, as their rights as ticketholders are essentially limited to attending the game," Conrad explains. He continues, "(2) Rule 17 does not mandate that the game be replayed; it is a discretionary rule giving the commissioner the option of such a remedy in an egregious situation. It is not a mandate." This outcome won't satisfy distraught Saints fans.
4. What can the NFL do to prevent this from happening again?
There's no easy answer to what the NFL should do about this kind of issue going forward, but Conrad lays out several options. "The league could change the rules permitting replays for situations like this," Conrad suggests. "Far more unlikely, the NFL could adopt a rule mandating that a game or portion be replayed in the event of a bad penalty call (or non-call) in a playoff game. I would not bet on that," he argues. Even the federal government could get involved: "A law could be passed by Congress and signed by the President mandating the NFL do such a thing. But that is super unlikely!" he asserts.