Replacement referees have become one of the biggest storylines of the 2012 NFL season as Roger Goodell and the league owners continue to lock out the legitimate officials.
The replacement refs have had some high-profile screw-ups, been called out by some high-profile players and have proven that the NFL didn't do a great job in vetting them. All of this stands in the way and tarnishes the quality of an otherwise great game.
That's the what, the where, the when and the who, but what about the why?
Why has the NFL locked out its referees, and what is it that the real referees want that the owners aren't willing to give them?
Money. Isn't that what it's always about?
Currently, NFL refs are well paid, receiving about $149,000 (on average) in 2011.
The number seems especially high when one remembers that being an NFL referee is essentially a hobby.
All of the real refs have other jobs. Ed Hochuli is a lawyer. Scott Green runs a D.C. lobbying firm.
The NFL has offered to increase that rate, but reports and stories differ on how much. Full-time officials in other sports earn $300,000-400,000, so if you consider the NFL refs half-time, the numbers seem to match up.
However, the roughly six-month NFL season isn't the beginning and end of the NFL referees' work. There is also work they do in terms of film study and new-rules study in the offseason. Referees also travel from team to team in the preseason to work on rules enforcement. The argument could be made that the referees work nearly year-round, albeit on a part-time basis.
Until the officials and referees get back together and get their stories straight, we won't know exactly how far they are apart, but with NFL revenues growing, the referees clearly want their fair share of the pie—at least, what they would consider their fair share of the pie.
Although "money" is at the core root of this point as well, the NFL's desire to do away with the NFL referee's pension plan is perhaps even more contentious than the overall pay dispute.
The NFL argues that traditional pension plans are dying all around the world and that newer 401K-based plans are the new norm.
The legitimate NFL referees argue that the NFL has more than enough money to continue the plans and clearly doesn't want to be the group to bear the brunt of such a transition.
Goodell has even noted that he does not have a traditional pension, but his "everyman" appeal falls on deaf ears when people remember his annual salary is $10 million and that it will double to $20 million by the end of his term.
While many NFL fans will never make the money that an NFL referee earns, perhaps the pension argument could prick the emotions of Americans everywhere who have seen their own pensions disappear over the past decade.
The last major issue standing between the NFL and the NFLRA is job security for the current NFL officials.
The NFL would like to improve officiating, and (to it) that means adding officials and creating a performance-based assignment method. From NFL spokesman Greg Aiello via ESPN:
"This would reduce stress on the officials by allowing each official to work fewer games, would reduce travel, would allow us to do more intensive training, integrate younger officials more effectively, increase diversity, and improve quality of officiating."
The problem is that the NFL adding refs means that the current refs get fewer assignments, which would lead to less money. The current refs also worry that they will be pushed out in favor of new full-time officials rather than be compensated fairly to leave their other jobs and become full time themselves.
Every NFL fan should welcome better officiating in the long term, but we need to realize that this is a life issue for the current refs in both the short term and long term. This is their livelihoods, not just a game they watch on Sundays.
The actual dollars-and-cents difference between the NFL and its officials is a problem smaller than both sides would admit. The biggest reason they have not come to an agreement is both sides have been trying to gain leverage and have not done enough negotiating to put forth a good-faith effort.
Perhaps with the replacement refs being more and more of a distraction and the real refs missing paychecks, the two sides will get back to the negotiating table and get a deal done. For NFL fans, let's hope it is sooner rather than later.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."