The NFL has always gone to great lengths to make sure that the public perception of its officials is above reproach. Yes, we may bray at the ways in which some referees bungle calls on Sundays (hello, Jeff Triplette), but as a general rule, the league has managed to avoid any obvious issues regarding corruption and bias in this regard.
And in that regard, the league now has a major, major problem on its hands. In a video posted on TMZ.com, NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino -- or someone that looks a lot like him -- is seen departing a party bus which seems to have been commandeered by Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones (son of team owner Jerry Jones). The bus was on the Sunset Strip, with FOX analyst Jay Glazer as a tour guide. One might wonder why Glazer is engaging in close proximity with a team executive, but that's part of Glazer's deal -- he breaks news based on those connections -- but the specter of the guy in charge of the NFL's officials this close to a key team executive does not look good at all. And according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, other execs around the league believe that this is Blandino (you can decide for yourself here -- the person in question walks off the bus and into a club at the 0:13 mark) and they are understandably furious.
"So, should I have my owner take him to a strip club when he visits us?" one team official told La Canfora. "Is that how it works? We like Dean a lot, but let me tell you, if that was him out with (the owner of a rival of the club this official works for), my owner would be going nuts. This just can't happen."
This team official then went on to specify why this is such a problem for the NFL.
"It shows a total lack of judgment, and common sense, to get on the bus in the first place. And then to get off of it in that setting? Yeah, we've got a big problem with that. It's one thing to have a drink or two back in the hotel room or whatever, but this goes way beyond that. How does this not look like preferential treatment?
"This is a league where everyone is looking for any edge they can possibly get, anything at all. And Dean is in a position where he is in communication with clubs all the time, teams are making sure officials are aware about what other teams are doing and what they should look for when they face them. I don't care what anyone (at the league office) would try to tell you. To teams, this is definitely a big deal."
Whether Blandino, who will start his second season as the league's officiating czar in 2014, would be swayed or influenced by such "entertainment" is completely irrelevant. When Blandino took this job, he swore to uphold a code of conduct (quoted below) that officials must be seen to understand as much, if not more, than anybody else.
All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid "conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League." This requirement applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials and all others privileged to work in the National Football League.
For many years, it has been well understood that rules promoting lawful, ethical, and responsible conduct serve the interests of the League, its players, and fans. Illegal or irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL.
Neither Blandino nor the NFL have responded to La Canfora's request for confirmation, denial, or anything else. But if this was Blandino, the league needs to at least suspend him, and possibly fire him. There's no wiggle room when you're talking about the perceived integrity of a league where billions of dollars are at stake every year. And Blandino should obviously know better.
"If I were another team owner, how could I not be irate?," another team official told La Canfora. "It gives the appearance of impropriety, and looks like a particularly cozy relationship between a team and the officiating department at a time when instant replay is being taken over more and more by the league office. You're damn right I'd be irate."
Yes, the league office is taking more control of replays, and yes, Jones is on the competition committee, which decides rules and points of emphasis every year. And that's why the league's response needs to be swift, and severe.