Seattle Screw. Fail Mary. Clueless in Seattle. The clever names are flying around Twitter this morning.

The image of the 2012 season, and not a good one.

I watched a football game last night that was mostly unremarkable. The Seattle Seahawks defense put Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers on the mat 8 times in the first half, that was something. Not much offensive spark was demonstrated by either squad.

Then we got to the end.

The picture on the left tells the story; a tale of confusion, of overwhelmed and under-qualified employees of the National Football League trying to make sense out of a big play. This play’s result was perfectly obvious to the national TV and online audience, but somehow, for reasons passing understanding, were not to the guys standing 4 inches from the action.

Empathic fellow that I consider myself to be, I tried to look at what happened through their eyes. Did I miss something? Is there a rule I’m not aware of?

Nope. Didn’t miss it. An epic fail.

I’m going to remind you the truth of why the NFL (and college football) are the money trees of the sports universe. Is it the extraordinary athleticism? The human drama of competition? The bigger-than-life coaching personalities?

Why do “we” care about Louisana-Monroe v. Ohio Wesleyan? Why do folks on the west coast gives two rips about a Tennessee Titans / Jacksonville Jaguars match? Why do thousands of Texans breathlessly monitor a Purdue  / Minnesota slobberknocker?

Gambling.

Baseball is largely a regional game. Same for hockey and hoops. We like our local teams and don’t get too worked up about what’s happening on the other end of the continent until there are playoff implications, or unless the Yankees are playing anyone.

Football is the “national pastime” because there are a whole lot of us who care about Boston College/Notre Dame and the over.

I do not gamble on much of anything, other than trying to time my morning parking with the BART train schedule, or attempting to pick the fast line in a grocery store. But I saw something last night that has likely tipped the scales in the negotiations between the NFL and the union representing their referees. And if it doesn’t, we are going to find a replacement ref in a river by next weekend.

These replacements are scabs but are probably otherwise decent people, save a Saints referee who was given the day off for a ridiculous Facebook post. They are simply unqualified to work these games. That’s a fact. They are performing an incredibly difficult task in circumstances they have no business being involved in.

The use of these underqualified officials now make betting on football illegitimate, and that is the single event that will move the negotiations forward. The commissioner of the league will not mention it. The players’ union will be quiet. The owners will roll out of their limos and won’t utter a word. The popularity of the league is dependent on gambling. If you don’t have legitimate outcomes, you don’t have TV ratings, you don’t have sponsorships and advertising, the sound of crickets are heard inside sports books  –  you don’t have much.

We know the WWE is theatre for dudes. There’s no mystery. Outcomes are pre-ordained. Fans watch for the comedy and the drama.

Football’s integrity is now in question. Gamblers who took the Packers -3 1/2 last night are lighter in the wallet and they’re not one bit happy about it. This is the earthquake that will shake the negotiations up and produce a deal much more quickly.

Bet on it.