The postgame reaction to the Green Bay Packers' 14-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night may come down to the right of freedom of speech against the iron fist of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Despite a clear social media policy the NFL introduced three years ago that prohibits criticizing officiating, some Packers players used their Twitter accounts to blast the league, Goodell, team owners and the replacement officials after the controversial, debatable loss.
With strong opinions and stronger, sometimes profane, language, Packers T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton, Tom Crabtree and Jermichael Finley ripped the league in the late hours of the night.
On his radio show mere hours later, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league's reigning most valuable player, backed his teammates with his own criticisms and went a step further to torch the NFL's reputation and integrity.
Whether any of them will suffer consequences in the form of a fine from the league remains to be seen. The NPL Players Association said Tuesday night it was not aware of any fines that had been issued, but it may simply be too early. Most on-field fines are doled out on the Friday after a Sunday game.
"I don't care," Sitton said Tuesday. "I shouldn't be fined for speaking the truth."
The players weren't this venomous when they spoke out during their own lockout in 2011. It is clear after three weeks of NFL football with replacement referees that their frustration is building.
The NFLPA's executive committee, which includes Packers center Jeff Saturday, sent a letter to owners this weekend calling on them to end the lockout.
"Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity," the letter says. "This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build. . . .
"The headlines are embarrassing: a scab working a game despite having been on the payroll of one of the teams, another who was assigned to referee a team he publicly supported on Facebook, and one who is a professional poker player when you propose even more stringent player rules on gambling."
One day later, after the Packers lost following three botched calls in the final minutes of the game, the social media fallout was like nothing Packer Nation has seen away from the Brett Favre trade. Green Bay players ripped the league directly under their own Twitter identities, and not under the protection of an anonymous newspaper quote.
While players like Greg Jennings said after the game they would not be critical of the refs for fear of a fine, this group seemed willing to take on the NFL.
"Got (expletive) by the refs.. Embarrassing. Thanks nfl," tweeted Lang. "Any player/coach in Seattle that really thinks they won that game has zero integrity as a man and should be embarrassed."
"Come on (at)NFL this (expletive) is getting out of Control. Caused us a DAMN game. Horrible!" tweeted Finley. "(at)NFL Cheap ass hell!! Get us some NFL REFS! Not PEE WEE league refs!"
"That was (expletive)," tweeted Sitton. "This is getting ridiculous! The NFL needs to get the refs back bfr we strike and they make no money!"
Even New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, laboring with a struggling team after the bounty scandal, chimed in: "Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?"
In addition, a Facebook page with the appearance of an association to the Packers publicized the phone number of the NFL offices in New York and football fans tweeted that they had left messages.
The NFL could consider all of these comments - and more - as violations of their social media policy. It clearly states that criticizing the officiating is prohibited and that a player who comments on a social media site to criticize the officiating is "subject to discipline."
It is not unlike the several high-profile coaches, including Bill Belichick, who could face potential punishment for conduct detrimental to the league after openly disagreeing with the officials. But the NFL could risk even more of its public relations image if it does anything more than warn the players.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent a letter to all players Tuesday denouncing the use of replacement refs because of safety issues. He also backed the players: "We are actively reviewing any and all possible actions to protect you."
George Atallah, NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs, called Monday "a sad day to be an NFL fan."
"The replacements' performance in the Seahawks-Packers game was embarrassing and aggravating," he said. "However, we need to direct our frustrations at the proper source: the NFL teams' owners who opted to use a lockout to try to break the referees' union. Plain and simple."
The NFLPA had a conference call with all its team representatives Tuesday night reminding them of the social media policy.
But by then, the venting was all but over.
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