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“No-call” from NFC championship game results in lawsuit and rule changes

August 07, 2019

Earlier this year, we wrote about the controversial “no-call” from the NFC championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. Many fans, particularly those from New Orleans, were shocked that the referees did not call a penalty during a key play late in the game, which may have cost the Saints the game and, in turn, the chance to proceed to the Super Bowl. 

The “no-call” resulted in several lawsuits by fans and ticket holders. While a federal lawsuit that sought a replay of a portion of the game was dismissed, one of the lawsuits filed in Louisiana state court has gained momentum over the past few weeks. The lawsuit is by attorney and season ticket holder, Tony LeMon, on behalf of himself, two other ticket holders and another fan who attended the game, alleging detrimental reliance, unfair trade practices and unjust enrichment. The lawsuit claims that the ticket holders relied upon the NFL’s representations that games are “fairly and impartially” officiated as well as League rules that permit the NFL Commissioner to take corrective action where necessary. It seeks US$75,000 in damages for the cost of the tickets and the emotional distress from not being able to witness the Saints win the game and advance to the Super Bowl. 

Last week, a Louisiana state appellate court upheld a decision to allow the case to proceed. Moreover, the judge presiding over the case held that the ticket holders could move forward with discovery against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and three game officials, including questioning them under oath in a deposition and requesting information and documents from them. Barring a successful appeal, the depositions are scheduled to take place in September. 

Meanwhile, change has already been implemented at the League level. By rule, pass interference requires an act that “significantly hinders” an opponent’s opportunity to make a play on the ball. According to the pass interference rule for the 2019 season, which was finalized in June, offensive and defensive pass interference calls—including “no-calls”—can be subject to review. Per the rule, coaches can challenge pass interference calls for the first 28 minutes of each half. Pass interference reviews after the two-minute warning of each half and during overtime will be initiated by the NFL’s replay official who will only stop the game for a review when there is “clear and obvious visual evidence” that a pass interference may or may not have occurred. Calls will only be reversed if there is “clear and obvious visual evidence" that an incorrect call was made. Additionally, all passing plays will be subject to review for pass interference. 

With the first game of the NFL season only a few weeks away, we will soon have a chance to see the impact of this new rule, and whether it will help to avoid missed or improper calls during pivotal game moments. In the interim, the Louisiana lawsuit will proceed, and Commissioner Goodell and three NFL officials may be required to testify about the lack of a pass interference or roughness penalty during last year’s NFC championship game. If the ticket holders prevail and are awarded damages, they have pledged to donate the damages to a charity created by a former Saints player.