Real refs worth the price of integrity

It came as no surprise when the NFL reached a deal with the referees' union Wednesday night, which ensured that Monday night's debacle was the last game officiated by the replacements this season.

Although the owners had locked out the referees, the truth is it might have well been a strike. Why? Because the referees knew that, at some point, leverage would come in the form of a horrendous call that affected the outcome of a game.

The owners convinced themselves, at least publicly, that this was not going to happen -- that referees were replaceable. What this experiment proved is they might be just as irreplaceable as the players themselves. Sure, you can get stand-ins to go through the motions, but substituting inexperience on a wholesale basis just isn't a good idea.

The events that led to the replacements' benching should never have happened in the first place. The owners took the position that just because the league is so healthy, it doesn't mean referees deserve a much bigger piece of the pie.

It took the embarrassment of Monday night to prove that they actually do. Sure, there are more officials on the field in football than in any other major sport. But it's also a harder game to referee, not only because having the right positioning is so crucial to making the call, but every decision is hyper-analyzed.

This new agreement will serve as the league's mea culpa because the NFL essentially had to uphold the touchdown call that resulted in the Seahawks' Monday night victory so as not to completely reverse leverage in the negotiations with the referees.

Skeptics continued to say in the hours after the game that a deal wouldn't be reached, because the league was more profitable than ever. People didn't stop watching games. In fact, they watched more. But just because a train wreck is worth watching doesn't mean there isn't any damage.

Know this: No matter how money-driven fans think Roger Goodell and the owners are, they are human beings. They do have pride in what they do. They do know just how bad that call and the reaction surrounding it was.

Does bringing back the referees mean there won't be bad calls? Of course not. They're not robots. What bringing back the refs does mean, though, is that fans, players, and yes, even owners, can feel confident that they at least have the best possible people out there to make those calls and that the price of that integrity is worth whatever deal they had to make.