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Bring them back. For the sake of the game, please, National Football League owners, settle your labor dispute with the officiating crews and bring them back to the field.

If you don't, the NFL season won't have much meaning. Another weekend like the one just concluded and fans will decide that bad calls are just as likely to determine the outcome of games as the play of the teams. The replacement officials just aren't cutting it. For the integrity of professional football, that's not good.

The Green Bay-Seattle fiasco on Monday Night Football was the most egregious example of officiating run amok, but it was hardly the only one. The New England-Baltimore game the day before also degenerated into farce. The incompetent officiating is lengthening games, as the men in stripes try to sort out disputed calls, and it could lead to violence on the field or in the stands from frustrated players or fans.

Everyone loves to criticize officiating, but the lesson of the first three weeks of the NFL season is that spotting violations of the rules and throwing flags isn't as easy as it seems.

So what's at the heart of the labor battle that has caused the NFL to lock out its union of 121 full-time referees? Surprisingly little, actually.

The refs earn about $150,000 a year on average. Not bad for a part-time job one afternoon a week, but salary is not the big item that separates the owners from the union. The real sticking point is retirement benefits. The refs now have a defined-benefit pension. The owners want to replace that with a 401(k) plan and reduce their contributions. The union wants to keep its defined benefits and shift only new hires to a 401(k). The league also wants a new quality-control measure for officials. (How ironic is that?)

To put this in perspective, the NFL's revenues are about $9 billion a year. The average player salary last season was $1.9 million and the median salary was $770,000. So this isn't about whether the NFL can afford its refs. This is about the owners sending a message that it is tough on unions.

Owners should not just cave. But when the quality of the product goes down the tube, the value of sending a message goes down, too.

The NFL has much bigger problems than compensation for officials. Chronic player injuries, especially from concussion, are one. The league needs the good will of fans to stay solid while it sorts out the human costs of the game.

It won't have that if it continues to compromise the quality of its product over a minor dispute with referees.

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