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It’s Not Just a Game: the Super Bowl is a Play for Economic Development

The New England Patriots are Super Bowl champs yet again after defeating the Los Angeles Rams. What some casual fans might not realize is that prior to the Super Bowl, New Orleans Saints fans threw one last Hail Mary pass aimed at replaying a portion of the NFC title game against the LA Rams.

On January 20, 2019, The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams faced off in New Orleans with the winner earning a trip to the Super Bowl. With 1:49 remaining in the 4th quarter, a Rams defensive player committed an egregious pass-interference penalty on a Saints receiver which the NFL later admitted was a blown call. Had the penalty flag been thrown, the Saints almost certainly would have advanced to the Super Bowl. The Rams went on to defeat the Saints in overtime, and Saints fans were left in a state of disbelief. The mistake was obvious even to a casual observer, and the NFL (eventually) admitted that a mistake was made. But the damage was done. The game was over, and as far as we all thought, nothing could be done about it.

The NFL is big business. In fact, the NFL earned a reported $14.2 Billion in 2017 alone. Every game potentially brings millions of dollars into each participating team’s city. This is especially true for the Super Bowl. Had the Saints advanced, it could have meant tens of millions of dollars in revenue for businesses in New Orleans. The New Orleans Saints as an organization however, were left with little to no recourse. Some Saints loyalists refused to let it go so easily. A group of Saints season-ticket holders decided to dig deep into the NFL rule book in search of some sort of relief. An attorney in New Orleans came across Rule 17 Section 2, which states in pertinent part:

“The Commissioner has the sole authority to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary and/or corrective measures if any…calamity occurs in an NFL game which the Commissioner deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.”

“The Commissioner’s powers under this Section 2 include … if appropriate, the reversal of a game’s result or the rescheduling of a game, either from the beginning or from the point at which the extraordinary act occurred…”

Interestingly, Section 2 specifically states that the “authority and measures provided for… do not constitute a protest machinery for NFL clubs”. In other words, the Saints as an organization couldn’t use this Section to protest the game. The rules do not, however, specifically prevent fans from attempting to enforce Section 2. Based on Rule 17, Saints fans filed a lawsuit aimed at strong-arming the NFL into a redo of the NFC Championship game. This rule arguably gives the Commissioner the authority to reverse the outcome or even have the game replayed. But the real question is; does the Rule require the commissioner to take action? Beyond that, can fans use the judicial system to back the NFL into a corner and force a mulligan? It seemed like a long shot from the outset, but there actually was some precedent. In 2001, the Cleveland Browns faced the Jacksonville Jaguars. After a disputed call late in the game, fans cascaded bottles and trash onto the field. Amid the chaos, the referees mistakenly ended the game before the clock hit 0:00. The Commissioner later required the teams to go back and finish the final few seconds.

The Saints lawsuit was under very different circumstances, and with much higher stakes. After all, the outcome of the NFC Championship game decided which team went to the Super Bowl. What’s more, the lawsuit was heard in U.S. District court on the very week before the Super Bowl. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan denied the plaintiffs’ request that she order the NFL to replay the end of the game. The decision held that the season-ticket holders who sued had no right to compel the NFL to enforce league rules. This ruling came on January 31, 2019, a mere 3 days before the Super Bowl. Though the lawsuit was unsuccessful, it certainly made things interesting in the days leading up to the big game. Had Judge Morgan ordered a replay of the NFC Championship game, it likely would have caused a logistical nightmare for the League. It also likely would have meant a big economic boost for the city of New Orleans. Ultimately, the court found in favor of the NFL, and Saints fans are left to lament and wonder what might have been.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our commercial and business litigation practice can be found here.

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