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NFL keeps playing pretend with schedule release

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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If TVGuide.com is to be believed (and since they're the only ones to be saying it, we sort of have to), the NFL is going to release its schedule Tuesday.

Its 16-game regular season schedule. The one you care about. The one you may never see if there's a lockout.

Now there's something to reflect upon for a moment while the NBA playoffs re-gather themselves from their initial smithereens.

Do you think NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith will be scanning the schedules Tuesday? (AP)  
Do you think NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith will be scanning the schedules Tuesday? (AP)  
The NFL has maintained its tactically understandable business-as-usual-if-the-union-will-only-admit-we're-right stance. They have worked the combine and the draft as though nothing bad will ever happen, as though there is nothing about the labor situation that could ever derail the machine of the year-round league.

And the combine came and went, to a fairly muted reaction. The hum around the draft is also underwhelming, despite the fevered work of everyone who covers the sport and who is charged with the duty of working the draft like it matters as much this year as it ever does.

The risk in both cases comes in not preparing for the combine and draft like there was going to be a continued lockout, because (and this is crucial) what if there isn't?

And the same can be said of the schedule release, if in fact the league is going to honor TVGuide.com's word. Tickets must be sold, even if the games are imaginary ones. The world view that all must be seen to be well whether it is or not is to be maintained. To keep the wheels turnin' you have to keep the engines churnin', as the philosopher says.

But let's be honest here -- as opposed to all the times when we've lied like politicians in October -- and say that if the league releases its schedule Tuesday, a lot of people will look upon it as a particularly Norm MacDonald-esque joke. You know, one more backhanded reminder that all is not well, not well at all.

All the news from the federal mediation sessions is that neither side wants to engage substantively on the big issues yet because each side believes it will prevail in court -- eventually.

And eventually in legal terms means a very long time, as the Barry Bonds case tells us.

In short, the labor-management needle has not moved very far because neither side wants it to, no matter how they posture otherwise. Both sides need to see if they can prevail in court before they return to the table, let alone the job site. There are still flaming hoops through which to hurl lawyers, and lawyers hold to their own schedule no matter what the combine says, the draft says or the schedule says. Indeed, TVGuide.com's vaunted powers don't stand a chance next to the briefcase armies preparing to do their bloodwork.

Now we're not arguing that the NFL shouldn't release its schedule, or hold its draft for that matter. It's all part of the show, and the strategy to have people think that the league's business can never be derailed.

But people do see that this is different, and nothing changes that. All the post-release breakdowns of the 32 schedules, the man-years spent evaluating games that at best won't be played for 4½ months and at worst may not be played at all -- it will all seem silly when every sentence begins with the deadly clause, "If the lockout is settled by then."

It's hard to make a convincing sell out of "this will happen if it happens, but we don't know if it will happen." The wishful thinking of people who cannot live without football saying the two sides will save themselves before it's too late is just that -- wishful. They don't have any idea what awaits the game, but they just cup their hands over their ears and hum really loud so the labor-management fights can never penetrate their thoughts.

And the schedule release allows them to continue to pretend awhile longer. But it also reminds people with a broader world view that the schedule may not be a schedule at all at this point, but a series of suggestions.

Suggestions, we should say, that have already sold all their ads. And if the ads have been sold, then let us continue to pretend to pretend. After all, that's all anyone has done since the Super Bowl ended anyway.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com

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