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Let’s get this NFL lockout over with

Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu (43) delivers blow Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings right as Jennings grabs receptifor touchdown during first

Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu (43) delivers a blow to Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, right, as Jennings grabs a reception for a touchdown during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl XLV football game Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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Updated: October 27, 2011 12:30AM

Years from now, people will remember what they were doing when the United States played Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final: celebrating the imminent end of the NFL lockout.

Kudos to the owners and players for what appears to be a near-settlement to their four-month disagreement. As dull and as painful as the lockout has been, the absence of games would be infinitely duller and more painful. With labor peace now within reach, fantasy-league players see a reason to live, gamblers are crying tears of joy and husbands who had envisioned a football-free world of antiquing and scrapbooking with their spouses are smiling contentedly.

The NFL is not bulletproof, but it’s the closest thing to it in sports. The owners and players know they’ll pile up loads of ill will if games are lost this season. In a poor economy, the last thing people want to see is rich owners and rich players arguing about a mountain of cash.

It’s obvious both sides get that part of it. There’s enough money to go around for everyone.

But it’s hard to picture the league’s fan base ever walking away from the game in disgust because of a labor stoppage, no matter how long and bitter. The NFL is too ingrained in our culture. You can attribute that to our love of the game, to the billions of dollars wagered weekly or to our bloodlust as a society.

The TV ratings don’t lie. Super Bowl XLV between Green Bay and Pittsburgh earlier this year drew an audience of 111 million, the biggest for a U.S. TV program. Of the top-20 prime-time telecasts of all time, 11 are Super Bowls.

Over the years, labor problems have hurt baseball. Disgusted fans stayed away after the 1994-95 strike. We’ve seen the same thing happen after NBA and NHL work stoppages. If the current NBA lockout is as lengthy as analysts are predicting, the league will lose part of its fan base. It simply doesn’t have the magnetic draw of the NFL.

We, the viewing public, can be used and abused, but don’t take away our football. The key word there is “our.’’ It’s how the country looks at the game. It’s ours. We can’t do without it.

Provided negotiations between the owners and players don’t break down this week, we’ll soon be able to get back to the rhythm of life. Free-agent signings. Training camp in the heat and humidity. Games on Sundays, forever and ever, amen. Or until the next lockout or strike.

We’ll soon get answers to whether Jay Cutler is healthy, whether Olin Kreutz is coming back and whether the Bears’ wide-receiver position will get an upgrade.

We’ll see how serious the NFL is about the concussion issue in its sport and whether it plans to take meaningful steps to improve player safety. We’ll find out whether James Harrison can coexist with Steelers teammate Ben Roethlisberger, whom he ripped in a recent Men’s Journal article.

We’ll waste all sorts of time on questions that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t mean much, but it’s a lot better than wasting time wondering whether there’s going to be a football season.

Last week, the owners and players reportedly reached agreement on two of the biggest issues — the salary cap, which will be set at $120 million, and a rookie wage scale. For anyone who has wondered why a high draft pick who has accomplished nothing in the NFL makes more than a proven starter, the rookie scale is the answer: He shouldn’t. A high draft pick should have to prove himself before he makes megabucks.

More good will come out of this lockout. The collective-bargaining agreement is expected to last 10 years. Ten years of peace. Ten years without the hourly torture of watching ESPN attempt to update stalled negotiations. I think I might cry.

The NFL is disputing a Sun-Times report that the Aug. 7 Bears-Rams Hall of Fame Game likely will be a casualty of the lengthy lockout. If that’s the extent of the damage — the cancellation of a meaningless game in which Cutler will play a series or two — then there’s really no damage.

Whatever the case, it looks as if most of the preseason will go on as planned. It means fans will not have felt the real pain of a lockout. Amazing, really. But if owners believe they sacrificed too much in a new CBA, they’ll raise ticket prices. It’s what they do. They’re owners.

But that’s for later. For now, let’s take a deep breath and hope that labor peace will settle over the NFL before the end of the week.

Congratulations to Japan for winning the Women’s World Cup on Sunday. Now let’s play some football.

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