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Lockout talk sends mixed messages

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The excitement-filled emails flood my inbox like New York Giants pass rushers descending upon Jay Cutler(notes), each message more triumphant and upbeat than the next.

Vikings Vs. Packers Is Most-Watched “Sunday Night Football” Broadcast Ever (Up 54 Percent From Last Year's Game)

ESPN's MNF Giants-Cowboys: Cable's Fourth-Largest Audience of All-Time and Most-Watched Cable Program of 2010

Highest Number of Average Viewers For AFC Package For First Six Weeks of the Season in 23 Years

Whenever I read one of these press releases from the NFL's broadcast partners, I feel warm and fuzzy inside. The euphoria really kicks in when the message comes from an actual team (the Patriots sent out a release heralding local ratings for their telecasts and noting that CBS' broadcast of the Oct. 17 New England-Baltimore game had the highest single-game rating since the network reacquired NFL broadcast rights in 1998) or, better yet, from the league itself: On Thursday I got an email from the NFL's PR department informing me that this is the most-watched NFL season ever … that more than 175 million fans have tuned in … that local ratings are on a record pace … and that the 14 most-watched TV shows this season (and 30 most in the cherished 18-to-49 demographic) are NFL games.

Yeeeeeee-Haaaaaaawwwwww!

And I can't even imagine how ecstatic I'll be when the NFL Network lets me know how many millions tuned in for Thursday night's Falcons-Ravens broadcast.

The reason I feel so good is obvious: In tough economic times, with so many Americans forced to make tough choices about how to spend their entertainment dollars, business is obviously booming for the new national pastime. Since I'm one of the many people who benefits from a robust and thriving NFL – and given that the lifeblood of the league is its guaranteed annual television revenue – this is absolutely fantastic news!

Except that, oddly enough, the big picture isn't looking so rosy. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the people who own the 32 NFL franchises have told us that the system is broken, and a drastic overhaul is needed to ensure that their way of doing business can subsist.

As I detailed before the start of the season, a labor showdown is looming that could well lead to an owner-initiated work-stoppage next March, and most players I talk to share the belief of NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith that a lockout is inevitable.

On Tuesday Goodell told the Associated Press that the next meeting between representatives for the owners and the union isn't scheduled until December. That's not exactly displaying a sense of urgency, and it further reinforces my view that the owners don't really want to make a deal until the players are in a scared and subservient position.

I believe that the vast majority of owners want to take away football for part or all of next season, until the players agree to give them what amounts to a significantly larger share of the economic pie. And when I think about that eventuality, my warm and fuzzy feeling turns cold and dark.

Maybe I'm a little slow, but the mixed messages are giving me a spot of trouble. If fan interest has never been higher (Sunday Night Football No. 1 Show of the Night for 9th Straight Sunday Despite Packers 45-7 Blowout Over 1-7 Cowboys) and, by extension, business has never been better, why are the owners so intent on initiating heavy-handed change? Since they won't open their books, as the union has requested, the only evidence of hard times we have to go by is necessarily of the anecdotal variety.

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How long will it take for Goodell and Smith to get their groups on the same page?
(Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

Sure, there have been a few more blackouts than usual this year, but ticket-sale revenues pale in comparison to those generated by the TV deals. And according to the league's broadcast partners – and, essentially, the league itself – the viewing public's desire to watch NFL games has never been more fervent. Trust me, I get bombarded with this inescapable fact on a steady basis.

This weekend I'll be covering the Sunday night game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, meaning that my afternoon duties will require me to join the massive TV audience monitoring other compelling contests around the country. That's a wonderful way to spend a day, and I'm truly grateful that the league on which I report is flourishing at a time when so many other entities are struggling to stay afloat.

Yet somehow, amid all the uncertainty, I don't feel much like celebrating. And if a year from now I'm sitting home on an autumn Sunday and staring at a blank screen – well, pardon me if I'll be feeling pretty damned far from groovy.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Things will get much, much bleaker at Winter Park after the Vikings fall to the opportunistic Bears at Soldier Field – but Brad Childress will still survive to coach against the Packers the following week. … Even without Matthew Stafford(notes), the Lions will keep the Bills winless in Buffalo. … The Texans will get back over .500 (but, naturally, remain on track for 8-8) by outscoring the Jags in Jacksonville.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Pittsburgh, one of America's most underrated cities, for Sunday night's intriguing showdown between the Steelers and Patriots at Heinz Field (and yet another reminder that my job doesn't suck).

WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL

In his final act as Cowboys coach, Wade Phillips did me a solid. Dallas was so unprepared against the Packers at Lambeau Field last Sunday night that, after a pair of overtime escapes, I enjoyed a stress-free evening while watching Green Bay's 45-7 romp. (Then I had to write all night. But that's a different story …) So now, in interim coach Jason Garrett's first game, I'm hoping for an encore. The 1-7 Cowboys visit the 6-2 Giants in what looks like one of the most lopsided matchups in recent years. So, naturally, it will be probably be much closer than any of us expect. Whatever – I'll take my chances with Tom Coughlin's team at home. (Off limits: Packers, Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Saints, Patriots, Falcons and Titans.)

FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK

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Bryant is one of the few 'Boys playing at a high level.
(Matthews Emmons/US Presswire)

As I told you last week, my fantasy friends hang in star-studded scenes. Unfortunately, when it comes to their respective leagues, my buddy Malibu and UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb are decidedly C-list right now. Gottlieb's The V.I.P. Room suffered its seventh consecutive defeat after a pair of season-opening victories and might as well be known as the V.I.P. Basement. (Just for kicks, I advised Gottlieb to claim Raiders rookie Jacoby Ford(notes) off last week's breakout effort, though he has a bye this week.) Meanwhile, Malibu's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (4-5) is wheezing along in ninth place in its 12-team league.

While Sabbath still has plausible playoff hopes, this week's matchup will be especially rough because Malibu's beloved Chargers have a bye, meaning Antonio Gates(notes), Malcom Floyd(notes) and Ryan Matthews are off (as are Donald Driver(notes) and Lance Moore(notes)). In need of a receiver or tight end to team with Dez Bryant(notes), Deion Branch(notes) and Jermaine Gresham(notes), Malibu needs to claim somebody off of waivers. I advised him to grab Seattle's Mike Williams (at Arizona), a sentence I never thought I'd utter until very recently. I also followed my gut and advised him to play Jay Cutler (vs. Vikings) over Donovan McNabb(notes) (vs. Eagles) and newly acquired Sam Bradford(notes) (at 49ers). I have a feeling none of this will matter all that much.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

FAU rant

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Abby Frerotte, who started causing trouble in sporting circles when she was five months old and who now denies entry to opposing field hockey players on a constant basis. Frerotte, a sophomore goalie, helped the John Burroughs Bombers to the Midwest Field Hockey Tournament title last Saturday in suburban St. Louis, where her father, Gus, made one of the last quarterbacking stops of his 15-year NFL career (and where her hilarious and headstrong mother, Annie, decided she'd seen enough moving vans). I look forward to some in-person shots with the Frerottes one of these months. In the meantime, I'm busting out the grenadine for Abby and seizing the opportunity to brag about my freshman daughter, who just took home the most improved player award at her high school field hockey team's banquet Tuesday night and who never met a ball (in any sport) she didn't wish she could blast past an opposing goalie.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Joanne Boyle's women's basketball team, coming off an NIT championship and gunning for a return to the NCAA tournament, opens its 2010-11 campaign against Rutgers at Haas Pavilion on Friday night. I'll be excited to watch freshmen Afure Jemerigbe, Lindsay Sherbert and Mikayla Lyles make their debuts and to welcome the return of senior Rama N'Diaye, who redshirted last season following reconstructive knee surgery. I'm also jacked about next year's star-studded incoming freshmen class: Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray and Erika Johnson, three highly ranked players who'll hopefully keep the program humming for years to come.

Also on Friday, Cal's women's soccer team faces Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Gainesville, Fla., it's seventh consecutive tournament appearance, and 12th in the last 13 years. Unfortunately for the Bears, they'll be without star senior striker Alex Morgan. Fortunately for the U.S. National team, Morgan, its only collegiate player, will be in uniform for a home-and-home showdown with Italy later this month to determine which team receives a spot in this summer's Women's World Cup.

Oh, and on Saturday Cal (5-4) hosts top-ranked Oregon at Memorial Stadium, where the Bears have yet to lose in 2010. If that streak somehow continues, you'll hear all about it. If not, Jeff Tedford's players will try to summon every ounce of pride, passion and intensity they've got to start a new one the following Saturday against Tiger Woods' favorite school.

Finally, a reminder to help Save Cal Rugby.

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