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NFL's fall of confusion

It took a 615-word email from the National Football League to explain the catastrophe that was the end of the nationally televised Seattle-Green Bay game Monday night. All you really need to know, however, can be boiled down to seven words: "The result of the game is final."
What's not over, though, is the lockout between the league and the NFL Referees Association - a dispute that's now carrying into the fourth week of regular season games and has become the talk of a football-crazed country.
"NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon. - bo" tweeted none other than President Obama on Tuesday.
As millions watched late Monday night on ESPN, the Seahawks threw a desperate Hail Mary pass to the end zone on the final play of the game. The ball appeared to be caught for an interception by Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, a result that would have sealed a Packers' win.
Instead, replacement officials ruled that Seattle receiver Golden Tate simultaneously possessed the ball - and thus was awarded a touchdown.
It took 10 minutes before that ruling was upheld after a video review. From the NFL's statement: "Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood."
If the tipping point in this labor standoff will be a game's outcome being directly decided, it's here. The firestorm of controversy from coaches, players, fans and the media about the officiating is burning brighter than ever.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers - one of the faces of the NFL as its MVP last season - slammed the league Tuesday morning on his radio show.
"The multi-billion-dollar machine is generated by people who pay good money to come watch us play," he said on Milwaukee's WAUK-AM. "The product on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials. The games are getting out of control.
"But my thing is, I just feel bad for the fans. They pay good money to watch this. The game is being tarnished by an NFL that obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished."
The Buffalo Bills have not had any major issues with the replacement officials in their three games, outside of the questioning of judgment penalties that are called dozens of times every week.
"I think coaches in general, and players in general, complain about officials," coach Chan Gailey said recently. "I do not care who they are. That is just our nature. We want everything to go not only perfect, but our way. And they do not. If you are looking for a perfect scenario you are never going to find it because the human element is involved."
While the outcry among players and fans in particular reached a fever pitch Tuesday, the damage to the game at least in economic terms has yet to be felt.
Attendance is on par with 2011. Sunday night's national TV game on ESPN, a Baltimore Ravens' 31-30 win over the New England Patriots, drew a 14.3 overnight rating, according to USA Today, which translates to 14.3 percents of households in the 56 TV markets measured for overnight ratings - up 8 percent from last year's game in the same time slot.
In Sunday night's game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick grabbed a replacement official on the way off the field, wanting to know whether the field goal that beat his team would be reviewed.
Belichick's reaction was just one example of visible frustration from throughout the league. Denver coach John Fox was fined $30,000 for verbal abuse of officials during a Week Two loss. Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan earned a 15-yard personal foul penalty for R-rated language used to protest an official's ruling.
"The real problem is plain and simple - the NFL's lack of responsibility to put out the best product possible. We're all seeing it. It's not the best product unless we have top-notch officials who are schooled in the NFL game," said former Bills guard Ruben Brown, who played 13 seasons in the league.
Brown also recited a refrain that's become common between current and former players.
"It will affect the safety of players out there," he said. "It's a very serious difference between an NFL official who can really decipher what's close, what's not close, what's safe on that speed and level with the rules and regulations in an NFL game, opposed to college guys coming in and learning what the rules are in the NFL and then seeing them at such a speed and knowing how to call them properly. It's just not up to par. It's not professional."
The NFL Players Association released a statement Tuesday echoing Brown's sentiment.
"It is the NFL's duty to provide a workplace that is as safe as possible. The league will want fans, the media and sponsors to talk only about 'the product' on the field. We are not product," NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in the statement. "While the focus [Tuesday] is about a blown call and the outcome of one football game, our focus as a family of players is and will remain squarely on workplace safety."
So what are the issues?
As is true in most disputes of this nature, money is a prime source of disagreement. Namely, the referees want to maintain their traditional pension plan. Sports Illustrated's Peter King reported Tuesday the league has contributed an average of $5.3 million per year to the pension plan. The league deems that too expensive and would like to replace the pension plan with a 401(k).
NFL referees, of whom there are 120, are part-time employees. For that work, they're paid an average of nearly $150,000. The league has reportedly offered 7 percent annual raises that would bring that salary to nearly $190,000 by 2018.
The New York Times on Monday published details of a memo sent by Jeff Pash, the league's general counsel and lead negotiator, to its 32 teams. In it, Pash tells team the NFL told the referees association and a federal mediator participating in negotiations that the league was prepared to make "reasonable" compromises on economic issues.
In exchange, the Times reported, the NFL wants more control over the officiating process. The league would like to add 21 officials - three crews of seven - to replace underperforming officials for as long as the league deems necessary.
Not surprisingly, the referees are objecting to such a request, because they are paid for each game. This is a major sticking point: the league wanting the power to control how many games officials work and the ability to make changes to crews based on individual performance.
The two sides met again Tuesday in New York, their fourth straight day.
"Everybody is very frustrated with the whole process," Brown said. "The longer it goes, the longer they don't come to an agreement, the more it seems to be hurting the integrity of the game.