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Bears feeling sense of urgency as Hall of Fame Game approaches

CHICAGO IL - JANUARY 23:  Quarterback Jay Cutler #6 Chicago Bears warms up before taking Green Bay Packers NFC

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23: Quarterback Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears warms up before taking on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\GYI0063169551.jpg

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Updated: July 6, 2011 2:12AM

If the Bears are feeling a greater sense of urgency about NFL owners and players coming up with a collective-bargaining agreement, it’s because they should.

Coach Lovie Smith’s team is scheduled to open training camp early and participate in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 7, meaning the timing of the agreement will affect them before other teams.

It appears NFL owners and players are finding middle ground, which could result in a CBA in the next three weeks. The question then becomes how much time it will take for the deal to be ratified by players and owners. Teams must be allowed to sign rookies and free agents. It will take at least a week to 10 days to accomplish this, according to NFL sources, meaning an agreement needs to be reached by mid-July to ensure that the Bears can start training camp at Olivet Nazarene University on time.

“Olivet goes on either way,” university spokesman Gary Griffin said. “We want the Bears on campus, but we still have our main job to do, whether they come or not.”

There are undoubtedly several veterans who wouldn’t mind missing a few weeks of training camp and seeing exhibition games wiped out, especially with the Bears scheduled to play five practice games, starting with the Hall of Fame Game against the St. Louis Rams the day after Richard Dent’s enshrinement.

Hall of Fame spokesman Joe Horrigan wants it known that the enshrinement festival will take place regardless of whether the game is played. Ticket sales for the game and the enshrinement ceremony have been sluggish, which was expected given the uncertainty surrounding the lockout.

“The only thing we can control is that we are prepared regardless of what the magical date might be,” Horrigan said when asked if the lockout had to end by a specific date for the Hall of Fame Game to be played. “We’d prefer not to speculate. The fact is, I’m sure there is a date in which it becomes impractical for the league and teams participating.”

Olivet Nazarene officials don’t seem to be sweating about the possibility of the Bears cancelling training camp, which becomes more of a possibility the longer the lockout drags on. Griffin said the university’s staff can be ready to host the Bears on 24 hours’ notice and will be prepared to accommodate fans for public practices a few days after that.

“We exist to serve and educate our students, and that job continues year-round no matter what happens in the NFL,” Griffin said. “If the NFL ends their [lockout] in the next three weeks, we put together a plan for training camp that we’ve had in effect for 10 years. Everybody knows their job, and we get ready like we always do. We’re not living under any more strain or pressure than any other year. We’re flexible. When your business is to provide an education and living atmosphere for 2,600 college students, being flexible with a pro training camp is pretty easy to do.”

If the lockout continues past the first week of August, the Bears might decide to hold an abbreviated training camp at Halas Hall rather than hauling all their equipment to Bourbonnais for what would only be a couple of weeks.

Roughly half of NFL teams conduct training camp at their own training facilities, but such a scenario would be problematic for the Bears. With little sideline space or parking at the team’s Lake Forest headquarters, it would be difficult for fans to watch training-camp practices. Although new grass practice fields were installed this offseason, the wear and tear on the turf from training-camp and regular-season practices also could result in the fields being overused by late in the season.

Postponing training camp isn’t a possibility because the university has to clear the campus to welcome students by Aug. 20, which presents yet another deadline for the Bears.

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