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Referee Robert Frazer signals a penalty during a preseason game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills.
Referee Robert Frazer signals a penalty during a preseason game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills.

Brace yourselves for a real bad call

Maybe the officials throw a penalty flag on a punt returner for holding, an impossibility. Maybe they signal a tackle while a player remains standing. Or improperly award a touchdown. Far-fetched? No. In fact, each of those goofs has happened during the pre-season.

It is a likely, if not inevitable, scenario.

The outcome of at least one National Football League game next week turns on an official's error. Fans and media focus on the foul-up, hammering the "zebras" and the zookeeper (Roger Goodell, the commissioner) instead of relishing the supernatural athleticism, dazzling action and intricate strategy of the game.

A league principle - that the players, not the referees, decide who wins - gets lost in the uproar.

Maybe the mistaken call is a team being awarded an extra down. Or an extra snap after time has expired in the first quarter.

Maybe the officials throw a penalty flag on a punt returner - for holding, an impossibility. Or they mark off the wrong yardage on a penalty.

Maybe they rule a touchback on a punt that lands short of the end zone. Or an incompletion when the ball never touches the ground.

Maybe they signal a tackle while a player remains standing. Or improperly award a touchdown to a quarterback who begins his slide short of the goal line.

Far-fetched? No. In fact, each of those goofs has happened during the pre-season, partly owing to sloppy work of over-their-head replacement officials.

These third-stringers - not second, which will be explained in a moment - were rounded up because the NFL has locked out its regulars over a contract dispute.

That the public has shown little concern is understandable. The scars remain from strikes and lockouts that have shut down or threatened their most beloved sports (up next: the National Hockey League), and they are content for now to ride out this nuisance as long as the games unfold.

Just wait, though. When an official's flub factors into a team opening 0-1, outrage will ensue, followed by an outbreak of internet searches for details on why the trained referees got benched.

Well, here's why.

The league aims to convert the officials' pension system to an employee-contribution model, gradually taking them from part-time to full-time status and increase the number of crews, which would reduce the existing workload (and pay) by an average of two games per season.

Various calculations suggest the changes would save each NFL team from US$30,000 (Dh110,190) to $60,000 annually - roughly the tab for an owner's collection of tailored suits.

The officials, most of whom maintain real-life careers, prefer the status quo, other than a salary hike. Negotiations have been nil, with the NFL apparently waiting for the men in stripes to capitulate.

Without the veterans blowing whistles, the Earth will not spin off its axis. Games will take place. There will be welcome moments of comic relief, such as the replacement guy misidentifying a team by forgetting which two are playing, confusion over who won the coin toss and a play nearly starting with an extra ball on the field.

All of the above occurred in exhibition games.

And just wait until word spreads that the substitutes are not culled from major college football, the next highest grade, but low-level colleges and obscure professional circuits. One fellow plied his trade in something called the Lingerie Football League, in which the (female) players compete in their knickers.

With heightened emphasis on player safety, officials already accustomed to the sport's speed and violence are essential to maintain control of games. At least once this month an illegal helmet to helmet hit went unpunished.

Yes, the idled crews are imperfect. Yet, like judges and police, perfection is expected of them. Minus a resolution, unaware fans are in for quite a shock.

sports@thenational.ae

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