In Week 1, it seemed unclear that the replacement refs were discernibly worse than the regular officials. That argument became harder to swallow for Baltimore fans in Week 2, when a questionable pass interference call against Jacoby Jones cost the Ravens a touchdown that likely would have secured victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
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Or maybe it was.
After the numerous refereeing foibles in Sunday night's nationally televised Ravens game and the call that handed the Seattle Seahawks a victory on Monday night, it's hard to pretend there's no problem.
With Monday's screw-up, it wasn't just that Seattle's touchdown should have been ruled an interception. It was the way two replacement refs stared at each other, frozen, and then issued opposite rulings. It was the way the white-capped head official failed to intervene. It was the way the officiating crew scrambled off the field, unaware that the Seahawks still had to kick an extra point.
It no longer even matters if a more detailed study might find that the replacement refs are as competent, on a call-by-call basis, as the regular officials. The veneer of competence has been lost, and that is just as important as the calls themselves.
Players, coaches and paying customers must believe that games are inherently fair, that if two teams go at it, some underlying flaw in the sport's structure will not prevent the better team from winning.
That's why gambling has always been the ultimate sin for players and coaches, because it calls into question the basic assumption of competition.
Referees, too, are an important part of our consensual understanding of sport. They keep the games running the way they're supposed to run.
Without them, the NFL is wandering dangerously close to a line where participants and customers will question the inherent validity of the product.
The league's reluctance to guarantee pensions for the regular officials is understandable. The trend in all of corporate America is to offer 401K plans rather than guaranteed retirement income. But if the referees can show they're a special enough class of employees that they deserve special contract considerations, that will all go out the window.
And it seems the referees are awfully close to winning that argument, at least in the public realm.