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Original Issue

Officially a Mess

Fill-in NFL referees are making a mockery of the preseason. This has to end soon—right?

Calls get missed in every NFL contest, and so they were in the preseason opener, the Hall of Fame Game between the Cardinals and Saints in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 5. A touchback was not ruled a touchback. An obvious helmet-to-helmet hit went unpunished. These are not newsworthy errors, normally, but in this case they were, as the officials botching the calls were not drawn from the NFL's normal pool of zebras but from a group of 135 men and one woman hired by the league to stand in for its regulars during a lockout that shows no signs of abating.

The replacement refs, officials who worked recently in the Arena Football League, United Football League and, in many cases, non--Division I college football, are undoubtedly less astute than the league's normal contingent. "The game is so much slower with them," observed one Cardinals player—anonymously, as Roger Goodell's office has instructed coaches and players not to comment on the officials. "They're not sure what they're doing, and it slows everything down."

But the real problem for the NFL is one of perception, that by refusing to accede to salary demands by the NFL Referees Association that would add up to cost increases of around $100,000 per team, per year, as well as pension adjustments, it is neglecting order and safety in a naturally chaotic and dangerous game. That position is untenable, and judging by the public outcry generated by even minor mistakes so far in the preseason, it is not one that people will forget. In other words, this is not, unusually, a battle that the league can win. Expect the normal officials to be back on the field by Week 1 of the regular season. And if not? Then expect to hear much more about it