Pro football is back. But its officials are not, as anyone who has watched a preseason game can tell you.
The National Football League has locked out its officials, opting to use replacement crews instead. The league has pulled these officials from small-college conferences, high schools, and one even came from the Lingerie Football League.
It's not surprising that the replacement officials have received universal scorn, even from within the football establishment. There have been countless blown calls and numerous examples of officials clearly not understanding the rules.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King referred to them as "embarrassing" and ESPN's Mike Greenberg tweeted that "NFL pretending replacement refs are no big deal is frustrating. Anyone can see a difference."
Players have taken to mocking the referees on the sidelines and fans have expressed outrage on message boards around the country.
And this is just the preseason. Wait until the games actually mean something.
So why are we in this mess? As always, because of money. The league has offered what it says amounts to a 5 to 11 percent increase in salaries while the National Football League Referees Association says that increase would effectively be only 2.8%.
It is true that NFL officials are paid much less than their counterparts in other sports. After five years, an NFL official makes $42,000. Meanwhile, a fifth-year MLB official makes $141,000 and a fifth-year NBA official makes $128,000.
Yes, officials in the other major professional sports leagues work more games. But the difference in games played doesn't matter when it comes to player salaries. Drew Brees earns just slightly more than Kobe Bryant for playing a lot fewer games.
Moreover, officials in other leagues aren't working for the most popular and profitable league in America. The NFL generates over $9 billion annually and that number will rise dramatically over the next nine years thanks to lucrative new television contracts.
The NFL has indicated these crews will likely continue into the regular season. Absurdly, Jerry Jones recently said, "As long as it's the same for both sides, and it will be, we'll be all right."
In other words, bad football's okay as long as it's fair.
That's coming from the same Jerry Jones who has insisted that bigger and more expensive (taxpayer-funded) stadiums are the way to build the NFL's brand. Nevermind the quality of the product on the field, just get 'em in the stadium. (Something Cowboy fans know all too well.)
The most troubling aspect of the referee lockout may be the player injuries that might result from poorly officiated games. The NFL has itself indicated the importance of having competent officials on the field to monitor for concussions. The league last year began training officials to look out for concussed players.
But can the same replacement officials who have proven that they can't even identify simple holding infractions be expected to be aware of and intervene if a player is concussed?
In fact, one wonders about the NFL's judgment that anything less than the most competent referees is prudent at a time when the league is being sued by more than 3,000 former players. These players contend that the league was, at best, negligent in educating them about the long-term health effects of playing football and, at worst, concealed evidence indicating such effects. By putting less competent officials out there now, is the NFL adding to the case against itself?
One thing is clear to everyone (except the NFL): by using replacement officials in the regular season, the league will be doing serious damage to its brand and to its new emphasis on player safety.
On the eve of the regular season, the NFL needs to act immediately to end the referee lockout. NFL fans and players deserve nothing less than the most competent, highly trained football officials in the world.
Follow Brian Frederick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brifred