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Woeful replacement refs threaten US football season

American football fans were in an uproar Tuesday over a labor dispute which has seen replacement referees botch calls and sow heartache among millions of followers of the most popular US sport.

The National Football League (NFL) last year survived a players' lock-out which threatened to shut down the entire season.

But sports analysts are warning that the game could be in even greater jeopardy this year after a profusion of uncalled penalties and blown calls by the temporary referees officiating for the 32-team league.

The lockout of veteran referees threatens to "irreparably damage" the game, warned sports columnist Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, who urged NFL owners to give in to demands from the striking referees for a pay increase.

Life in much of America comes to a standstill every Sunday as the country focuses on the exploits of the helmeted armor-clad gladiators of the bruising blood sport.

Just three weeks into the 16-game NFL regular season, no one expected such widespread national despair over the absence of the veteran officials.

Since NFL owners shut the referees out and hired less experienced temporary officials, the quality of play has eroded in the eyes of most football fans.

The level of sportsmanship also has suffered, as players take advantage of the relative inexperience of the temporary referees to take cheap shots at their opponents on the field.

In some cases, players have brawled openly with members from the opposing team, knowing that the temporary refs were unlikely to intervene.

Perhaps even more troubling are the abundant mistakes that have changed the momentum of games, narrowed the margins of victory, and in a couple of cases, even changed the outcome of the contest.

The most egregious call, during the sport's marquee weekly Monday Night Football game, proved to be the final straw for some.

The questionable call came on the final play of a hard-fought game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.

With time running out, defender M.D. Jennings of the Packers appeared to intercept a last-gasp pass into the end zone by Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson, preserving a 12-7 victory for the Wisconsin-based team.

But to the stunned amazement of fans across the country, the referees ruled that Seahawk receiver Golden Tate had caught the ball.

The referees upheld the ruling after reviewing videotape of the play, giving Seattle a 14-12 win and spurring sports writers across the country to say that the time had come to end the lockout at all costs.

Even Steve Kelley, a columnist with the hometown Seattle Times, bemoaned the "controversy and the chaos and the embarrassment" that came with the officials' ruling.

"This is what happens when amateurs are asked to call a professional game," Kelley wrote.

"This is the result of the deal with the devil the NFL made. This is what happens when the league is more concerned with winning a labor dispute than it is with maintaining the integrity of its product."

The controversy even crept to the top of the political agenda as Republican vice presidential candidate -- and Packers fan -- Paul Ryan demanded that the league get rid of the replacement referees.

"Give me a break," the Wisconsin lawmaker told supporters at a campaign event in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"It's time to get the real refs!" Ryan declared, using the opportunity to take a shot at the White House incumbent.

"You know what, it reminds me of President (Barack) Obama and the economy. If you can't get it right, it's time to get out," Ryan said.

Not to be outdone, Obama took to Twitter, writing on his @barackobama account that "NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon."

After a day of global diplomacy in New York, the president later groused about the "terrible" Monday night game.

"I've been saying for months, we've got to get our refs back," he told reporters as arrived back at the White House.

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