By Brandon Niles Explorebigsky.com Sports Columnist

While the ongoing battle between the NFL and its referee officials is a well known of issue in sports, it’s gained only nominal buzz outside the football world – lost, perhaps, among last season’s league strikes and the possible looming NHL lockout.

The NFL Referees Association began their lockout in June of this year. Since then, talks have broken down, and the league office has used replacement officials since the beginning of the preseason. The last time this occurred was 11 years ago, when an agreement was made after the first week of the season. So far, no such deal seems to be on the horizon.

Many NFL fans have been clamoring for the league and its rule-keepers to strike a deal quickly, because the replacement officials have already been criticized for making vital mistakes early in the season.

Undoubtedly, the league office will soon begin feeling the heat from owners, fans and the press. After the first week of the regular season, water cooler discussions all over the country were centered on various mistakes made during opening day.

Regardless of whether one takes the side of the officials or the league, an argument can be made that the league’s recent commitment to safety might be at jeopardy as result of the replacement officials. While this statement may seem to favor the referee’s side of the debate, I can’t help but think players are less safe with replacement officials on the field.

On opening day there were multiple occasions when defensive players made bone-crushing hits, leading with their helmets, but the referees threw very few penalty flags. Some of these players may later earn penalties from the league office, after the NFL reviews the games; however, each illegal hit that goes by without a penalty encourages players to return to the hard-hitting ways of old. This seems to run contrary to the league’s admirable change in emphasis on player safety.

Ultimately, I think this will get worked out, and I’m not one argue about the performance of referees. They have difficult, stressful their jobs, and I don’t envy them at all.

But I am concerned that yet another lockout in a league that saw a bitter end to the 2011 players’ lockout could cause a further rift between the players and the commissioner. The players already have an “us versus them” mentality, and I find it hard to believe that the league office wants a similar situation with the referees.

In the meantime, give the replacement refs a break from all the criticism. They’re doing the best they can at a terribly difficult job, and without them, we’d have no football at all.