The NFL’s investigation into Mike Evans’ autograph imbroglio came to a screeching halt with a press release that gave off “forget it, it’s Chinatown” vibes. One day into the league’s inquiry, into Evans’ infamous scribble for game officials Tripp Sutter and Jeff Lamberth following the Buccaneers’ 21-3 loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers, it was buried just as quickly. The NFL announced that no misconduct occurred in a release, but refused to elaborate. It was telling that rather than fully exonerate their officials and Evans, the league initially opted to allow the story to linger out there while they obfuscated. It wasn’t until the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissaro filled in the missing details that the general public learned the official story.
Reportedly, Evans gave his number to Lamberth, a fellow Texas A&M alum, to pass along to a golf pro for the wide receiver to get lessons from. However, Lamberth was missing a sheet of paper to jot it down on and borrowed one from Sutter, Pelissero noted. Well, that settles it. Nothing to see here, folks.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association prohibits the NFL’s officials from asking “players, coaches or any other teams personnel for autographs or memorabilia.” Oddly, it doesn’t appear to have any qualms with the exchange of digits between an athlete and a ref. How does anyone in the league office not see a problem with this?
The league hand-waved aside the allegations away in under 48 hours. Typically taking the NFL by its word is a treacherous endeavor. Even my wave caps are even covered in tin foil, but if the NFL’s PR team cobbled together a response that was worse than the original accusations, then they’re even bigger galaxy brains than we ever knew.
If Evans shanked a drive in Florida he’d have a golf pro offering him lessons within 60 seconds. He can handle that on his own without the aid of officials. What next? Calling up the head of officiating for where to find a good accountant? Sharing thoughts about the new season of Ted Lasso via texts with whoever leads the NFL’s instant replay command center? If the NFL is fine with its officials operating as messenger pigeons between NFL players and golf pros, then there will be bigger scandals on the horizon.
The league already has stringent tampering rules in place that regulate communications between players and personnel from other teams. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was fined $1.5 million for tampering with Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Tom Brady and then-Saints coach Sean Payton. One of the allegations was that Miami’s vice chairman contacted Brady about joining the organization while the QB was under contract with the Bucs. How hard would it be to extend that to officials?
This chill ¯_(ツ)_/¯ attitude has rarely been the NFL’s stance on these sorts of interactions and it’s strange that they’re brushing this to the side. They have rules dictating almost every motion players make on game days. The NFL cares more about the appearance of improprieties being on video rather than the actual malfeasance. That has been their stance on domestic violence and the since-destroyed Spygate tapes as well. Player misconduct gets a slap on the wrist unless there are pictures or videos capturing these transgressions.
Evans and Sutter’s exchange could have been an honest one, but if players and officials fraternizing in this way don’t get slapped down, it will become more commonplace, proliferate, and create conditions for the abuse of those relationships.