End the referee lockout now

With the regular season starting soon, Ed Hochuli and his experienced colleagues need to return now. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Where is Ed Hochuli? The National Football League needs to bring him -- and his 120 officiating brethren -- back immediately. End this lockout with the NFL Referees Association and the madness of using replacement officials.

The NFL is a $9 billion industry and growing. It can't have unqualified, inexperienced officials making calls that affect the outcomes of games. It can't have men, and a woman, who have never worked an NFL game step in and help legislate player safety, supposedly one of the league's most important initiatives. It is lunacy. It will affect the integrity of the game. It already has.

The league and the referees' union have dug in on the issues. Fine. That happens in negotiations. The league is holding firm that the union will cave, and the union is hoping the prospective nightmare of replacement refs in the regular season will spur the league to concede.

There are about three weeks to go before the regular season. As my colleague Andrew Brandt likes to say: deadlines spur action. So there is still time. There is still hope.

But the league is dancing on delicate ground. Thus far, the replacement officials have been a joke. The referee for the Hall of Fame game between New Orleans and Arizona flubbed the coin toss, announcing that the Saints had won the toss and elected to defer when the Cardinals had actually won it. That same referee, Craig Ochoa, twice referred to Atlanta as Arizona in the Falcons' opener against Baltimore. His voice was noticeably shaky.

The referee for the Monday night game between Dallas and Oakland had trouble operating his microphone. Another screwed up another coin flip. There have been missed spots, a messed up 10-second runoff, missed calls and no calls. In the New York Giants opener against Jacksonville, Giants punt returner Jayron Hosley was called for holding while returning a punt. A back judge for the Buffalo-Washington game called a touchback on a punt downed at the 4-yard line.

In some cases, crews have swallowed their whistles. In the Hall of Fame game, they called 10 penalties, seven of which were the most basic, obvious calls in the game: holding, false start and defensive offside.

And this is the preseason. The speed of the game isn't what it will be in Week 1. There isn't much crowd noise. There is little pressure on either side to win the game. The outcomes are essentially meaningless.

What happens when 80,000 people are in the stands and the players are playing at a noticeably faster pace? What happens when the outcomes matter? There is practice speed and preseason speed. And then there is regular-season speed. It requires an enormous adjustment. This isn't small college, arena football or the lingerie league. This is the show.

The NFL has asked coaches and players not to comment on the officiating. It is understandable. A bunch of moaning and groaning about the quality of the replacement officials would hurt the league's negotiating power.

Some players, like Drew Brees, have ignored the league's request. Many more likely would if the replacement refs -- let's call them what they are, scabs -- worked Week 1. Just imagine if an official bungled a call that cost a team a game. Everyone makes mistakes (just ask Hochuli), but the likelihood of a person with zero NFL experience making a game-changing mistake is way higher. Every game in the NFL matters. Every game is valuable.

Coaches and players would be outraged if a game turned on a call.

Think they would bite their tongues then? Think again.

As in any labor dispute, neither side is blameless. The officials, who are part-time employees, want to keep their pension plan fully funded, even though 14 of the league's 32 teams don't maintain defined benefit plans for their employees. The league wants to add three officiating crews (21 people total), which the referees' union said Thursday would decrease the salaries of the other 121 officials and turn the pension plan into a 401K.

For coaches, players and fans, the only thing that matters is that a deal gets done. It must. There are more than 3,000 former players suing the NFL over the concussion issue. The company that insured the league last season against concussion lawsuits is trying to separate itself from the league.

And the NFL is OK with using inexperienced replacement officials to determine late hits, horse collar tackles, illegal contact and roughing the passer? Roger Goodell has made player safety his mantra. Through rules changes, the game is evolving. Technology is improving.

To even consider having amateurs on the field to legislate the game is asinine. For the good of the game, the league has got to bring Ed Hochuli and his people back.