“Holdout” is one of the dirtiest words in professional sports. And because we the fans are so disgusted by the nature of contract disputes, we tend to ignore the details of the stalemates that take place every August in the National Football League. I think most of us see a guy who’s significantly richer than us bitching over what he’s being paid to play a game for a living and we turn our heads.

The players are almost always the bad guys. After all, they signed the contracts they’re complaining about. Why shouldn’t they honor these pacts? Why should teams cave in to brats with no apparent leverage?

I’ve said this quite a few times previously in this space, but I’ve always gotten a kick out of the way in which society feels the need to cast a hero and a villain in real-world quarrels. It’s our pathetic attempt to ignore the gray area that complicates the issues at stake.

Unfortunately, NFL contract disputes aren’t black and white. And this summer’s battle between Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans represents that. Neither Johnson nor Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt are villains. In fact, both are victims of the league’s compensation system. And both are victims of their own success.

Reinfeldt was savvy enough to steal Johnson with the 24th pick of the 2008 NFL draft. Within 24 months, “CJ2k” was the league’s best running back. Johnson has obviously outplayed the hell out of his rookie contract, and now he wants more cash. But it was Reinfeldt who found the league’s best offensive player as a diamond in the rough in ’08 and locked him in for half a decade. Something has to give, someone has to pay the price for their own accomplishments. No one said life is fair.

Johnson is due only $800,000 in 2011 and just over $2 million in 2012. Assuming he reports to the Titans by Week 10 this year, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in 2013. He has every right to hold out. Don’t tell me that it’s dishonorable to peacefully protest a salary which was previously agreed upon, because this has to be a two-way street.

In the NFL, contracts are only partially guaranteed. And so long as players are being released from million-dollar deals for underperforming, they should have the ability to request raises when they’re overperforming.

To his credit, Reinfeldt has said that he plans on making Johnson the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Two problems there: 1) Tennessee hasn’t made an actual offer to Johnson and reportedly won’t do so until he shows up at the team’s facilities (a big leverage twist), and 2) Johnson wants to be paid like a top playmaker, not a top running back.

Because the vast majority of running backs are of the dime-a-dozen variety, they simply aren’t paid like the game’s top quarterbacks, receivers, pass rushers and cover corners. Top running back money is about $10 million per year (Adrian Peterson will make $10.7 million in 2011). Johnson reportedly wants over $13 million a year, which is more than Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha.

That’s a lot of money, and I don’t think the Titans feel squeezed to cough it up. On the surface, it appears that Johnson has most or all of the leverage here. He doesn’t seem to care about losing an accrued season toward free agency and the Titans are a significantly weaker team without him in the lineup.

But some very important factors are actually working against the Johnson. He’ll be 26 next month. That’s middle age in the world of running backs, and he still has two years remaining on his rookie contract. Technically, the Titans could force Johnson to play to continue to accrue seasons and earn that long-term deal he’s seeking. If he decides to sit, he’ll rot away and waste his prime at home, which will be much more financially debilitating than “settling” for the top running back salary in the game.

The Titans are not prepared to compete for a Super Bowl in 2011, but it doesn’t take long for bad teams to become good in this league. They’ll never admit this to their fans or players, but with Jake Locker being groomed and the defense in flux the front office is fully aware that this team is at least a year away from threatening to do big things.

And then there’s this from Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports:

If you’re a Titans fan these days, realize that if a team is willing to do this to its top two players, there is absolutely no commitment to win. There is a reason why the franchise (formerly the Houston Oilers) has gone 49 seasons since winning a championship (the Oilers won the AFL in the league’s first two seasons) and has appeared in the Super Bowl only once. Under the guidance of owner Bud “Bottom Line” Adams, the Titans don’t care about winning – at least not on the field.

A little hyperbolic, but Cole is basically right. And while that argument won’t help the team’s image, Reinfeldt is only doing his job and serving Adams. It doesn’t change the fact that the bottom-line mentality hurts Johnson in this conflict.

To boot, Johnson is being fined $30,000 for each day he misses. In other words, he’ll have surrendered nearly half of his 2011 base salary by the time training camp wraps up next week.

Johnson’s numbers plummeted last year. They were still phenomenal, but they plummeted. It might have been the least productive season of his three-year career. What does that mean? Did he peak early? Was 2009 his prime? Will it be downhill from here? These are the kinds of questions the Titans are asking, and there’s a chance they aren’t in any more of a rush than Johnson is.

And so everyone’s being victimized. Especially the fans.