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Referee Lockout: Should the Federal Trade Commission Investigate the NFL?

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Tuesday afternoon, Sports Fans Coalition Chairman and Green Bay Packers shareholder David Goodfriend called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the National Football League’s “deceptive” use of replacement referees has violated “consumer protection statutes.” Monday night, the Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks on a controversial call many have blamed on the NFL’s use of replacement referees.

In a letter to FTC Chairman Jonathan Liebowitz, Goodfriend wrote that the NFL has led fans to believe that the “officiating of games is conducted at a high-standard, ‘professional’ level. Consumers are led to believe that referees know and understand the NFL’s rules and will apply them objectively, consistently, and accurately.”

In fact, according to Goodfriend, “many of the referees have records of incompetence.” For example, “some of the NFL’s current referees were dismissed by their prior employer, the ‘Lingerie Football League,’ meet the NFL’s own claims of high-level, professional quality.”

The full text of the letter is below or can be viewed here.

Following the game, several in the media criticized the NFL’s continued use of replacement officials. ESPN announcer Mike Tirico, who called the game, said during the telecast that the replacement referees “just cost the Packers the game,” and added,“This is wrong. I don’t feel good about this.”

Goodfriend served in the Clinton White House and founded Sports Fans Coalition in 2009 to give fans a voice on issues like media blackouts, high ticket prices, stadium construction, and college football playoffs. It is now the largest nonprofit fan advocacy organization in the country. In January, Sports Fans Coalition successfully lobbied the FCC to review its blackout rule for the first time in four decades. Just weeks later, the National Football League agreed to revise its own decades-old blackout rules.

September 25, 2012

The Honorable Jonathan Liebowitz, Chairman
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580

Dear Chairman Liebowitz,

The Federal Trade Commission is charged with protecting consumers from unfair or deceptive trade practices. Generally speaking, under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, a commercial entity may not make a representation, omission, or otherwise mislead (or take actions likely to mislead) a consumer.

The National Football League’s assertion to sports fans that it is providing a product of equal quality to prior seasons while using non-union “replacement referees” in the current season qualifies as a deceptive practice worthy of your agency’s immediate investigation.

First, the National Football League (NFL) creates and owns intellectual property – televised football games — that it licenses to distributors and consumers. It asserts that its product is of “professional” quality and that the competition between any given two teams is genuine, not staged or pre-determined by the league.

Second, implicit within this assertion of product quality is the notion that the officiating of games is conducted at a high-standard, “professional” level. Consumers are led to believe that referees know and understand the NFL’s rules and will apply them objectively, consistently, and accurately.

Third, in the context of its current lockout against unionized professional referees, the NFL has hired referees who do not meet the generally accepted standard of “professional” quality. Significantly, many of the referees have records of incompetence. For example, some of the NFL’s current referees were dismissed by their prior employer, the “Lingerie Football League,” meet the NFL’s own claims of high-level, professional quality.

 

Last night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks was just the latest example of the NFL’s illegal violation of consumer protection statutes. The very commentators
hired by NFL broadcasting partner ESPN to provide play-by-play action to the television audience suggested that the outcome was not legitimate. “The [replacement referees] just cost the Packers the game,” ESPN commentator Mike Tirico said. He continued, “This is wrong . . . I don’t feel good about this.” Tirico’s partner, Jon Gruden added, “I don’t like the way this game finished. I have a bad taste in my mouth.”

In my individual capacity as a shareholder in the Green Bay Packers, and in my capacity as Chairman of Sports Fans Coalition, the pre-eminent non-profit public policy advocacy
organization on behalf of sports fans in the U.S., I urge the Federal Trade Commission to open an investigation immediately to determine whether, as asserted herein, the National Football
League has violated federal consumer protection statutes.

Sincerely,

_/s/______________

David Goodfriend, Chairman
Sports Fans Coalition

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