NFL suits up for season, but the game's the thing


Can you imagine a football league featuring innovative ideas? Can you imagine a football league free of labor strife, lawsuits, contract hassles and holdouts -- and even drug problems?

There is such a utopian league. It's called the World League oAmerican Football, and, despite its lack of off-field problems and its willingness to try new things, the television ratings for its first season were so tiny, you needed a microscope to examine them.

By contrast, the National Football League, which is preparing foits 72nd season, is beset by off-field problems, but they haven't spoiled the league's popularity.

As the teams start camp -- the Washington Redskins are one of five teams that open camp today, and all of them will be open by July 22 -- the league is battling the NFL Players Association in six -- count 'em, six -- lawsuits.

The most important one is due to reach the trial stage Feb. 17 in Minneapolis. It'll be an antitrust trial before Federal Judge David Doty in which the players will fight for free agency in a sort of legal Super Bowl. It'll be the league's fourth major antitrust trial in the past decade.

It figured that, when the owners met in Dallas on Thursday, they weren't discussing the upcoming season. They were discussing their legal strategy in all the lawsuits.

The league has its usual wave of holdouts. Only five first-rounpicks have signed.

The game also continues to take on more of a corporate image under commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a lawyer who lacks Pete Rozelle's deft touch for public relations. The NFL can be called the No Fun League, because it seems intent on taking the soul out of the game and has banned such celebrations as the Ickey Shuffle.

Then there's the continuing controversy over drug use, especially in the wake of charges by Lyle Alzado, who is suffering from brain cancer that he says is the result of steroid use. He says the league has "looked the other way" on steroids.

So, what's the impact of all these troubles?

Apparently, not much.

The popularity of the game on the field continues to soar. The league has set attendance records the past two seasons. It is the only sport on five different television networks -- all three over-the-air networks and two cable networks. It is the only sport shown throughout the regular season in prime time. "Monday Night Football" was the sixth-rated prime-time show last year. That was its highest finish ever.

In a recent poll conducted by Libermen Research Inc. for Sports Illustrated, football widened its lead over baseball as the most popular sport. Over the past five years, football continued to rank as a favorite among 60 percent of the respondents, but baseball dropped from 59 percent to 52 percent. Other polls have shown similar results.

The NFL also is coming off a dramatic high at the end of last season. The final two games -- the New York Giants' 15-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game and the Giants' 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl -- each came down to a field goal. Matt Bahr made his and Scott Norwood missed his, and the Giants were champions.

"My sense in talking to owners and club people is that there's a very positive feeling right now growing out of the Super Bowl and the Giants-49ers game. It affects people. Each season affects you in some way. There's a very positive feeling right now that we have a great product and great players," Tagliabue said recently.

The NFL seems more product than sport or game now. Sometimes, it's easy to think they play the games simply to market items for NFL Properties.

But the fans can't get enough of it, and there are more than enough subplots to keep them interested this year.

Can the Giants repeat despite the loss of Bill Parcells? Can the Bills overcome the dramatic Super Bowl loss? Can the 49ers bounce back despite the loss of Roger Craig and Ronnie Lott? Can the Redskins find a Super Bowl quarterback?

Those are just some of the many questions that will be answered this year.

Much of the focus will be on the Giants and Ray Handley, who replaced Parcells as head coach and will try to match George Seifert's 1989 feat of winning the Super Bowl in his first season as 49ers head coach. Seifert did it after replacing Bill Walsh.

Walsh and Parcells went to NBC after stepping down.

There's one difference. Walsh, who's 59, may have left the sidelines for good. He turned down a lucrative offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year.

Parcells, by contrast, is only 49. He may be taking a one-yea sabbatical the way Pat Riley did last season, which he spent with NBC before switching from the Los Angeles Lakers to the New York Knicks.

Because Richard Williamson was given only a two-year contract as Tampa Bay head coach after Walsh had turned the job down, Parcells may wind up there if the Bucs flop again this year.

The fate of the Bucs and Parcells' future are just two more intriguing aspects to the upcoming season.

The lawsuits and the holdouts come and go, but the fans put up with them because they're hooked on the game.

Seven weeks from tomorrow tonight, the fans get their first Monday night fix of the year: Giants vs. 49ers.

Even all the lawsuits can't spoil that.

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