Mired in a contract dispute, the National Football League locked out its regular referees in June. The league thought it could rely on less-experienced officials who normally work small college football games.
The results so far have been predictable: blown calls, angry players, livid coaches and ridicule from fans and the media.
The league isn't backing down. It says the replacements have been doing a good job, and cited a statistic showing that the replacement refs are throwing about as many penalty flags as the regular officials.
Maybe so. But PR spin can only go so far. The games are taking longer to complete as the replacement refs aren't as familiar with the rulebook, there are more instant replay reviews and on-field scrums are frequently turning into full-scale fights.
ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico summed it up during the Monday Night Football game between Denver and Atlanta: "Honestly, it's embarrassing. The command and control of this game is gone."
As bad as the replacement refs are, veteran NFL refs aren't perfect, either. And they're not full-time NFL employees. During the week, most have other jobs. Still, they want the NFL to pay them more money for their part-time job, plus guarantee them a full pension plan.
While the sloppy officiating so far this season might strengthen the referees' bargaining position, this is not the time to be greedy. The refs have some of the best moonlighting gigs in the world. They need to be willing to compromise.
The NFL didn't get to be a $9 billion a year corporate behemoth by giving in to contract demands. But the league has to do something to protect the integrity and appeal of America's favorite sport. Their players are the best in the world. The refs need to be the best, too.
Reach an agreement. Now.