By Dan Bernstein–

CHICAGO (WSCR) I have to hand it to the NFL.

Few organizations could publicly promote their immediate future with such fanfare and grandiosity while simultaneously insisting none of it will ever happen if they don’t want it to.

What they’re saying is, “See all these great games coming up this year, especially all the first-week heavyweight matchups? You may not get them. Excited about your team’s first-round draft pick becoming their next impact player? Enjoy watching him work out on the treadmill next to yours at the health club.”

They know the dual-channeled messages are received differently, depending on how one’s antennae may be tuned.

Much of this is a show of size and force to a now-unofficial players’ union that is already showing signs of strain. Commissioner Roger Goodell thrusts forward his red-white-and-blue NFL shield and marches forward with his business. He’s Captain America in a charcoal-gray, pinstriped suit, sending a message of invincibility.

He hears every next report of another player swimming with loan sharks to keep his house, or selling a tricked-out Bentley for pennies on the dollar. Too many warnings of personal financial crisis were unheeded, creating a host of desperate, Aesop-fable grasshoppers who now watch as Goodell flexes league muscle.

A “die-hard ____ fan” (and I’m envisioning one of the message-board cretins or postgame-show callers, here) has no desire to follow the labor negotiations or courtroom wrangling because he can never understand it, and has no desire to try. He’s able to ignore any possibility that training camp will be cancelled or games will be missed. He’s never heard of David Boies, but he knows David Garrard and David Carr. He will lap up whatever the league feeds him, whenever, and is taken for granted by the NFL to underpin their strategy.

Those of us who think more rationally about our teams, though, are trying to balance all the relevant information to judge the proper level of emotional investment. We want to believe that neither players nor owners are stupid enough to do irreparable harm to such a wildly popular and profitable business, but we can’t be sure.

We care about the schedule, but don’t want to commit too much head-space to it until we are more certain it will actually exist. Same deal with the draft: it’s hard to celebrate an infusion of new potential talent without wondering when we’ll see it in uniform.

The mediated labor talks have adjourned until the middle of next month, with the two sides dug firmly into their positions, awaiting a ruling in the class-action antitrust suit. As that drama unfolds, league activities continue as if completely disconnected.

What we will see is that these parallel lines will eventually converge, and with greater force as every day goes by.

The NFL’s proud, business-as-usual approach will be seen as punishable arrogance by union leadership, even with the rank and file growing restless as bills pile up. Fans either willfully ignorant of reality or overconfident in a sensible outcome may be slapped in the face when zero-hour comes.

Owners and players are playing poker, empowered by our loyalty to the nation’s biggest sport as they exchange grim stares across the table.

Each splashy headline about this year’s big games or the next big star player is just a reminder of the stakes.

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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