By Ralph Hutchinson, Sports Writer

For years, I have heard people saying that the NFL has a few teams it favors, and a few teams it dislikes, and that the league has instructed officials to help favored teams, and pick on disfavored teams. I had written this off as sour grapes from the fans of losing teams, but what they say seems more believable all the time. If it is true, game rigging would be very easy. A few missed calls here and a few bogus calls there would be all it would take.

In the divisional playoff game between the New York Jets and the San Diego Chargers, I don't think the Jets were ever called for holding, though I saw offensive linemen with two fists full of blue jersey several times. They had gotten away with the same against the Cincinnati Bengals just one week before that. Pass interference being called or not called is another thing that frequently leaves me scratching my head.

If there are teams the league likes to help, and teams the league tries to sandbag, why? One reason would be that small markets do not bring in as much revenue as large markets. Another is that old stadiums without plush corporate luxury boxes don't bring in the bucks. A third is that some teams sell a lot more souvenir jerseys and memorabilia than others, and keeping them successful keeps the money flowing in. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys sell a lot more stuff than the Jacksonville Jaguars or Detroit Lions, for example.

If the NFL was helping out the Jets, why the Jets? They are from New York, the single largest market, and the Giants were too bad to bother with this year. Also, Super Bowl III, the famous game between the Jets and Colts was 41 years ago. It was like a Hollywood movie. The league might have decided that they wanted to relive it this year for a trip to the Super Bowl as soon as they realized it was possible. It would make a great story. Sunday's game has already got the press interviewing Joe Namath again.

Now that we have established that Pittsburgh, Dallas, and New York are among the favored, who are the disfavored? One that springs right to mind is the Cincinnati Bengals. They are in a small market. When the city of Baltimore was shopping for a new team in the 1990s, and was talking to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they were told to stop by then Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue. He said that the league valued that market, and that they should go talk to the Bengals. He said that the league did not covet that market.

Another one is the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo is cold, and that stadium is old. Ralph Wilson doesn't even want to stay there. He wants to move to Toronto, a move that could be the beginning of the end for the Canadian Football League, and its unique style of play that reminds me of old-time football. I would hate to see the NFL destroy that.

The San Diego Chargers get to the playoffs seemingly every year, but no further. Why would the league pick on them? No new stadium. I strongly suspect that the league would much rather see them become the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are another disfavored team. Putting a team in Jacksonville was a mistake. It is way too small of a market. They never sell out the stadium, and their home games are blacked out. Why waste valuable post-season time on them?

The Houston Texans were placed there only reluctantly after two proposals to put an expansion franchise in L.A. fell through, and the Texans have never been to the post-season. They, like Jacksonville, may be viewed as an "oops" by the league.

The San Francisco 49ers used to be a favored team. They were the golden boys, but no more. Why? Because Candlestick Park is an aging derelict that does not have the posh luxury boxes for corporate fat cats to entertain themselves and schmooze clients. I am surprised no one has built a stadium yet that isn't all luxury boxes, and no seats at all for the rest of us.

What has been the stumbling block that prevents the league from moving back into the second largest market, Los Angeles? Actually, there are two reasons. One is that the L.A. Coliseum is a crumbling dinosaur, but that is small potatoes. The real reason is that the threat of moving there can be held like the Sword of Damocles above the head of any city that doesn't want to build a new facility. They say "build us a new facility with those luxury boxes we love at public expense, or we are out of here with all the billions we generate." Most city, county, and state governments give in rather than calling this the extortion it is, and bringing prosecution against the league and their local franchise under the RICO act. They should. The NFL gets away with acting like the Mafia too much.

Maybe I am just entertaining disgruntled fans' crazy notions, but the lack of holding calls and other nonsense by the stripes is getting harder and harder to ignore. It is also hard to ignore that the announcers won't point out uncalled holding. They could be fired, or their networks could lose those big TV contracts if they made the league mad. Game rigging is not that far-fetched. It happened in the NBA. Tim Donaghy saw to it that high-rolling gamblers could win their bets, and insists he did not act alone. Gambling corrupts everything it touches, but the NFL seems to have more reasons to tinker with the outcome of games than just gambling. If they are doing this, they need to stop it! The failure of the XFL proved that we do not want fake, scripted football. We want a fair competition, and a game rigging scandal could kill the NFL's popularity if it were proven to be widespread. Maybe Congress should investigate whether the NFL is rigged in addition to looking into concussions.

Reader Reactions

I noticed last season that the New Orleans Saints got more than their share of great calls and no calls during the season and playoffs. Not once were they called for offensive holding during the playoffs. Also repeatedly lay late hits on QBs Kurt Warner and Brett Favre during playoff games, which obviously impacted the outcome of both games. During both regular season contests with the Falcons, the Saints needed last minute comebacks to win. In both games facing 3rd and long, the refs marked the ball as much as two yards in favor of the Saints to ensure that the drives kept going. If not they would have been forced to either punt away or go for a 4th down conversion. This also happened during the first season back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I watch all the games as I live in Louisiana, and used to be a Saints season ticket holder. I can't respect the league any longer. Championships are nice but not if they are tarnished like this one obviously is.

T. B. in Louisiana