A cry sometimes heard from NFL fans when a call doesn’t go their team’s way is that the NFL is rigged.
Is there anything to this? Or is it just disgruntled fans losing their sense of perspective? And what about recent accusations by Brian Flores of a franchise losing matches for better draft picks?
Two accusations float around the sport: either that the games are scripted, or that they are fixed. Let’s examine both charges.
Could The NFL Be Scripted?
Some hold the view that NFL games are scripted from beginning to end, just like professional wrestling.
There is some kind of story that runs through the season, designed to keep fans glued to the screens for the next game.
It could be the underdog going on a winning run. Or it could follow the heel – the guy that everybody wants to see lose. Scripting means that the entire season plays out to a detailed script planned in the head office.
Argument against: too many people to keep quiet
A scripted season would require every player, coach, and team staff all to be in on a plan to have the games come out a certain way.
There is no way this secret could ever be kept. All you would need is one disgruntled former employee or diva athlete to decide to blow the whistle and the whole thing would be revealed.
This hasn’t happened.
Think about the number of retired NFL players who are in the headlines for losing their money and their mansions and going broke.
Why hasn’t any of these guys taken a big wad of cash from a newspaper or tv station to spill the beans? Think of one of them crying on a chair beside Oprah!
Argument against: too expensive to keep quiet
Perhaps nobody has spilled the beans because they’re all being paid off?
The number of payoffs the NFL would have to make every year to silence former employees and players would bankrupt even the moneymaking machine that is the NFL!
Argument for: didn’t the NFL admit it?
The main conspiracy theory in favor of scripting is based on some arguments that the NFL itself has made in court!
The NFL has legally described itself as a single entertainment corporation as opposed to 32 competing franchises.
The scripting theory goes like this: the NFL describes itself exactly how pro wrestling describes itself. But pro wrestling is obviously and openly fake with highly scripted events.
Ergo, the only reason that the NFL would describe itself this way is so it could script games with impunity.
Argument against: no, the NFL didn’t admit it
This is a complete misunderstanding of why the NFL has this structure.
By structuring itself as a single entertainment corporation, the NFL teams are no longer subject to United States antitrust laws. (This is different to how Major League Baseball acquired an exemption to antitrust laws).
This allows them to do things like have a draft and limit which teams a player can negotiate with. Check out our article on the history of the NFL draft.
It also allows revenue sharing which means that teams in Green Bay or Kansas City are every bit as financially viable as teams in New York City or Dallas.
If the season is scripted, why do coaches and general managers get fired if the team has a losing season? Aren’t they just doing their job and following the plan?
The idea that the people on the losing teams would consent to be fired, shamed, and ridiculed just to meet the needs of some script is nonsensical.
Could The NFL Be Fixed?
Fixing is a little different. Fixing means that a select few players or referees are told to skew things to affect the outcome. This might be more feasible to pull off and keep quiet.
Are there individual cases where a player or referee might be pressured by organized crime to throw a game for gambling purposes?
No hard proof
That may have happened, but it’s never been proven.
Conspiracy theorists cite documents stating that the FBI looked into Mafia connections to NFL game-fixing in the 1960s and 70s.
However, they overlook the fact that the FBI never brought any charges based on those investigations.
That being said, let’s look at the main points that people make when they are convinced that a game was fixed.
Arguments For NFL Fixing
The main arguments that there is some fixing going on by the NFL is a combination of:
- good storylines that seem to be a result of some kind of planning.
- bad calls by referees
- statistical anomalies (the Packers had ten games without a holding penalty)
Let’s look at these in turn.
Do Storylines Show That The NFL Is Fixing Games?
Super Bowl XLVII had two brothers as the head coaches of the two teams.
People point to this as an example of a great storyline that couldn’t have happened by itself. Both teams must have had their paths to the Bowl “helped” along the way.
Argument against: the Manning brothers
The counter-argument is that f the league was going to fix games to create storylines, the last several years would look a lot different than they have.
Two brothers as coaches in the Super Bowl? Sure, it’s a great storyline.
But do you know what would have Hollywood salivating? If the opposing quarterbacks were brothers!
If the NFL was fixing for storylines, there definitely would have been a Super Bowl where the Manning brothers, two of the biggest stars in the league, played each other.
Argument against: the Patriots
Sure, lots of people point to the domination of the Patriots as some kind of fix.
But this goes against arguments that the NFL wants good storylines. That’s a plural i.e great stories for different teams, not just one.
For the overall health of the NFL, the New England Patriots wouldn’t have won so many Super Bowls.
The entire point of the salary cap was to eliminate the powerful NFL dynasties that had dominated the pre-salary cap era. The idea was, with the salary cap there would be a constant turnover of good and bad teams with no perennial champions and no perennial losers.
What happened instead? The New England Patriots became so skilled at playing the salary cap that they built the biggest dynasty of them all and have dominated the salary cap era.
Especially after the SpyGate and DeflateGate scandals, the Patriots are not at all popular with the league or the fans.
Every new Patriot playoff run was greeted with a collective groan across the league and in the media. In a fixed system, they never would have won as much.
Arguments against: the Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys draw an audience like no other. They are simultaneously one of the most loved and most hated teams in the league.
Yet, they have not won a Super Bowl in this century and they have only won two playoff games in the last decade!
If the league was fixing games, the Cowboys would be winning a few Super Bowls to provide great storylines for their fans.
Are NFL Referees Fixing Games?
All those bad calls. And the fouls that are completely missed. Is something shady going on?
In our view, the referees aren’t crooked. They just aren’t very good.
It’s long been a common perception that NFL refs just make a lot of mistakes. It’s even been referred to as an officiating crisis.
Unbelievably for a billion-dollar league, NFL referees aren’t even all full-time!
A ref may call a game on Sunday, then go back to his full-time job as a lawyer or dairy farmer, to give a few actual examples.
When there’s a choice between a giant conspiracy or just human error, the latter is always the more likely option.
Argument against: the NBA as exhibit one!
The biggest argument against the league allowing referees to fix games is the potential consequence. The backlash would be massive if it was ever discovered, which it probably would be.
Just look at pro basketball!
The NBA suffered huge backlash when referee Tim Donaghy was found to be fixing games. It’s true that he was doing it for organized crime and not at the behest of the NBA.
But the league suffered greatly in reputation and audience at the time.
If it ever came out that the NFL itself was involved in something like this, the potential legal and popular backlash is almost unimaginable.
Argument for: unconscious bias
Is it possible that a referee may unconsciously give preference to a more powerful or popular team, or to the bigger star?
Of course. Referees are only human and are subject to human flaws. This is an argument that we are prepared to accept.
But there’s a big difference between an unconscious bias and intentional cheating.
Would An NFL Team Tank For Draft Picks?
A related concept is tanking for draft picks. This means intentionally losing so that your bad record will give you higher picks in the draft the following year.
In the NBA, this is a pretty common concept. Basketball fans sometimes root for their teams to do it.
The NFL culture is seriously different. Intentionally losing a game for any reason is seen as unforgivable by fans – when they are made aware of it.
Philadelphia Eagles controversy
A clear example of this was the Philadelphia Eagles’ final game of the season in 2020. The game didn’t matter to the franchise because they were already eliminated.
The Eagles coach was already thinking about next season. In the second half, Doug Pedersen pulled his uninjured starting quarterback out of the game. He put in a clearly unprepared backup who hadn’t been on the field for the entire season.
The results were predictable. This was widely viewed as an intentional tank. There was uproar within the sport.
The Eagles fired Pedersen soon afterward. This gave him the dubious honor of being the first coach in almost fifty years to be fired that soon after winning a Super Bowl.
There were rumors that the Eagles fired him to avoid league sanctions.
Brian Flores lawsuit makes accusations of tanking
Recently, a former Miami Dolphins head coach has filed a lawsuit against his former franchise that include allegations of tanking.
Brian Flores claims that he was offered $100K bonuses to lose games in 2019 to get better draft picks.
We’ll see how this plays out in the courts.
Conclusion? No Reason For The NFL To Fix Games
While it’s very possible an occasional player may throw a game or that a referee might try to influence an outcome for criminal gambling reasons, it makes no sense that the league would fix games.
There is too much to lose and not much to gain.
The NFL is already the most popular sport in the United States. Even games between two bad teams get better television ratings than almost any other program.
The NFL doesn’t need to cheat to be popular and could lose hugely by doing so.