In the spring of 1995, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my career.
I took a bunch of frauds seriously.
With the Players Association on strike, Major League Baseball teams fielded ''replacement'' players for spring games. I'm embarrassed to admit that, for a day or two, I was glad to see a bunch of unspoiled, eager athletes wearing Twins uniforms.
My enthusiasm waned once they tried to play baseball. You can find knock-off Rolexes in Times Square that were better imitations than the faux ballplayers. They were embarrassments to the game.
Even if they had played the game better, they would have been embarrassments to themselves. They were willing to cross a picket line and take the jobs of professionals far superior to them. They weren't just lousy ballplayers; they were identity thieves.
I vowed never to forget the lessons learned that spring. So while most of America seems to be arguing today that the NFL's replacement referees should be dismissed because they performed like drunken jesters all weekend, I believe they would deserve our ridicule even if they hadn't so frequently reminded us of their ineptitude.
And, man, did they remind us of their ineptitude. They lost control of games. They created long delays while they sorted through rules foreign to them. They marked off penalties incorrectly. They made a stunning number of bad calls.
What did the NFL expect? However flawed the real refs might be, they are the best in the world at what they do. When you hire someone and train him or her to do a job, you aren't ensuring perfection. You are investing in percentages and professionalism.
If you have a plumbing problem, you can hire your neighbor who says he knows what he's doing, and hope that he doesn't flood your basement, or you can hire a professional plumber. Maybe your neighbor can do the job, but the percentages are with the pro.
The replacement refs are not pros. One wore Saints gear in a Facebook photo. Another, according to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, told McCoy, ''I need you for my fantasy team !'' They proved to be so clueless during the Monday night game that ESPN announcer Mike Tirico, one of the most bland and uncontroversial voices in the business, excoriated them.
Only the NFL could make us miss someone as officious and narcissistic as Ed Hochuli, the official who can't decide whether he's more in love with his speaking voice or his biceps.
It can be difficult to pick sides during a labor dispute. The officials want to make more money and earn better benefits for a part-time job than most Americans can make working two or three jobs.
Their position, though, is much stronger than that of a league that seems intent on asking the question, ''Just how poorly can we run our business before it hurts our popularity?''
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell inherited the most popular sport in American history. He has done little to encourage the notion that he should receive any credit for the game's success.
He insisted on fining and suspending players for questionable off-field behavior in a league filled with questionable off-field behavior, turning himself into a glorified mall cop.
He turned the Saints' bounty scandal into a reason to doubt his competence.
He became a micro-manager intent on withholding benefits from the NFL officials when he should have seen the big picture, that investing a small portion of the league's enormous profits in competent referees would benefit his product and, perhaps, keep a few more players healthy.
Goodell invites cynicism. He's lucky so many Americans are invested in his sport, whether because of ties to their local team or some form of gambling, that he doesn't have to pay for his malpractice.
The price is paid by players and fans subjected to the replacements' incompetence.
The real problem with the replacement refs isn't that one of them might wear a Saints shirt.
The real problem with the replacement refs is they haven't earned the right to wear Hochuli's.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org