Steinberg: NFL needs to replace the replacements

Are you ready for some football?

The first full weekend of NFL games kicks off Sunday, but this won't by any normal opening weekend.

Something critical is missing — real NFL officials. The league and its officials have been deadlocked throughout the summer on terms for a new contract. In a move reminiscent of President Reagan and the air traffic controllers, the NFL decided to start the season without them, turning to replacement officials.

NFL games are the most difficult in team sports to officiate. effectively referee. Unless you've ever stood on the sidelines, it is difficult to comprehend the massive amount of action and force occurring on each play. Imagine 22 gargantuan bodies moving laterally and vertically at breathtaking speed. A complex set of rules need to be enforced under extreme time pressure and most calls are subject to instant replay scrutiny.

There is a critical need to enforce unnecessary roughness and late-hit penalties to protect the health and safety of players. This is a sport that has been generally well-officiated by well-trained, experienced professionals. The search for replacement officials focused on small college Division II and III football. There are also replacements from the Arena League, high schools and even the Lingerie Football League. This is the first experience in NFL football for all of them.

The preseason was played with these replacements. In the first game, referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans had won the toss. Except it was Arizona. There were penalties called on wrong players, spots of the ball were a couple yards off and inaccurate or misleading explanations were made publicly of the penalty calls.

It is not that  regular officials never make bad calls. But the pressure and activity in the regular season is vastly different than the preseason. Regular season games feature the fastest, most talented players, and the speed of the game is exponentially higher.

Remember the famous "I Love Lucy" episode when Lucy and Ethel are competently wrapping candy on an assembly line, but as the line moves progressively faster they can't keep up and hilarious chaos ensues? The best players, coached by the best staffs, playing in state-of-the-art stadiums are ready to provide thrilling action, but they have far from the best officials to keep the games credible. Every error a replacement official makes promises to slow down the action and undermine confidence in the results. Those fans who play in fantasy leagues or wager on the games will be especially upset.

The NFL and the NFL Players Assn. spent prodigious amounts of time in the 2011 offseason and crafted a 10-year collective bargaining agreement that ensures that the focus of fans stays on the field. The lack of labor controversy has allowed the NFL to concentrate on building revenue streams and the brand. The NFL Network, DirecTV, naming rights, corporate sponsorships and more are all a consequence of a long-term collective bargaining agreement that insures the games will be played without interruption.

A league this brilliant knows better than to allow issues of officiating to be a focus and distraction.

The money differential between the two sides — salary and benefits — has never been substantial enough to have this type of impasse. The league's position that the refs are replaceable is simply not true. The type of men who function admirably under crowd, player and coach interaction are a unique breed.

They are respected pillars in their communities who have full-time jobs in the offseason. This is part of the problem. The system needs to be changed so that officials are employed throughout the year. And they need to be well-compensated to provide order and reliability out of chaos.

Please don't confuse this group with the Bolshevik workers revolt. Until the officials become full-time employees, the NFL needs its best officials back. This deal needs to be made now.

LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or

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