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Get comfortable, because labor fight is far from over

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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The one thing we absolutely, positively, indubitably know about the NFL labor impasse/lockout/millionairebillionaire spitfight is this:

We have no patience.

Friday's breathless TV talking head announcement, "We have entered Day 80 of the NFL lockout" reminded us yet again that there's going to be a Day 81, and a Day 82, and a Day 83, and on and on and on.

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But the coverage of Friday's 8th Circuit hearing, and the hints that the two sides are starting to nervously sidle up to each other, suggested that a momentous day was upon us all.

And it isn't. This was just another third-inning at-bat.

OK, fifth-inning at-bat. We know how six more innings of this would make you all sweat to the point of dehydration.

So here's a primer on how to handle the long, drawn-out process of owner-on-player bullying:

The owners will tell you when they're ready to start football. This is their play, and it will end when there are enough owners who need to open their doors more than they need to make the players crawl.

This has always sat in the owners' court, because no matter what agreement is reached with the players, the owners who have a lot still have to deal with the problem of the owners who don't getting their way on more liberal revenue-sharing rules. The only way around that was to get a settlement with the players so crushing that even the owners who get checks from their earnings superiors would pencil out the player concessions favorably.

The players have known this from the start, and while they have wanted there to be no lockout at all and the old CBA to apply until there's a new one, their backup plan has been to string out the process and wait for the cracks in management's façade to reveal themselves.

It has been a risky strategy in some ways, because their own financial issues are always in play, but it has been a strategy that, like the owners', needed time to play out. And it is that time that has frustrated the media covering it. They want news that the battle lines are moving, and in fact this is a bit more like the tactics of the First World War -- stay behind the trenches and wait for the other side's supply lines to break down.

The question most asked is always, "When are we getting football again?" and it sounds more and more like, "When are the drugs coming?" There is that much room at the NFL trough for both players and media.

But the truth is that nobody can answer this because nobody is able to penetrate those owners who could hold up a settlement merely by demanding that the revenue-sharing rules be revisited. Those would be teams in smaller TV markets, or teams with soft ticket bases, or with owners who bought their teams with debt rather than cash, or owners who have other financial pressures outside the football team.

They are the ones who have defined this lockout, because they are the ones who insisted upon it and have gone to court thrice ... well, four times now ... to defend it. And they are the ones whose strategy was to starve out the players before they themselves were starved out.

So while the 8th Circuit Court hears arguments Friday before re-re-affirming themselves, and the candle in the window of the not-secret secret meeting between representatives of the two sides slowly flickers, the truth is this:

We have a long, long way to go with this, and the key will not be when the players collapse (that day has already passed, really), but when the owners turn on themselves and argue about what kind of course correction they'll have to make among themselves when the time actually comes to discuss ratification of an agreement.

In other words, this whole lot of no fun is going to stay a whole lot of no fun, and you shouldn't be fooled by "Well, at least they're talking" shots in the dark. It's the fifth inning, which is still not long enough for a starting pitcher from either side to get a win. Buy a beer and a brat. It'll make the time go faster.

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

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