From the Couch: NFL’s touchy subject

Are ya ready for some football?

Alrighty then. And are ya ready for a potential NFL lockout in 2011, a compensation dispute if owners expand to 18 regular-season games, and questions about the potential long-term health effects related to football collisions?

The networks that carry the National Football League don’t deserve pity. Still, it’s hard not feel a little sorry for them as they tiptoe along trying to report on what feels like an abundance of behind-the-scenes intrigue — unrelated to their customary focus on wins and losses — as the new football season begins.

Broadcasters like to think they fairly cover every aspect of the game. Yet their networks are also partners with the major leagues — in the NFL’s case, to the tune of about $4 billion annually — and thus have a serious investment in pro football’s prosperity.

Wearing those two hats can make for a delicate balancing act — and invites skepticism, especially in print circles, as to whether networks will accurately cover such nettlesome issues.

New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, for example, wrote a scathing piece about college football’s offseason scandals, from USC’s probation to his paper’s reporting on possible brain damage caused by football injuries. “Just guessing that broadcasters of college and pro games will not burden fans with the details,” he concluded.

The NFL’s labor negotiations represent a particularly messy thicket for the networks, which inadvertently play a key supporting role in the process.

That’s because the NFL Players Association is legally challenging a provision in current TV contracts that call for the networks to keep paying the league during a work stoppage. Players claim the owners essentially received “lockout insurance” — accepting less money “in exchange for a guaranteed stream of revenue … during any lockout in 2011.” (The NFL has dubbed this “meritless.”)

To its credit, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” tackled the labor battle Sunday, as host Bob Ley spoke of this season’s “backbeat of extra tension” and “The very real possibility the NFL’s 23 years of labor peace will fracture.”

The program made only fleeting reference, however, to the importance of TV money — which accounts for roughly half the $8 billion the league earns annually — with no mention of its significant role during Hannah Storm’s interview with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

ESPN alone shells out more than $1 billion for “Monday Night Football.” While FOX, NBC, CBS and DirecTV currently pad the NFL’s coffers with outlays of at least $620 million each.

Ah, must have slipped their minds.

Although people are generally drawn to controversy, it’s much easier to cover more sensational flare-ups — say, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s off-the-field antics — than contractual haggling that pits millionaire players (admittedly with perilously brief careers) against billionaire owners.

The networks would also clearly benefit from switching to 18 regular-season games, which is a no-brainer for owners, but heightens the risk of career-shortening injury for players. The last such change — expanding to 16 games from 14 — happened during the Carter administration.

To be fair, a sizable portion of NFL viewers don’t want to be bothered with such matters. They strictly yearn to enjoy the action — and perhaps the cathartic aspects of large men crashing into each other. Such fans are concerned with their team’s prospects and doubtless don’t relish being bogged down in detailed explanations of the league’s complicated revenue-sharing formula.

A few points, however, are obvious — among them that when it comes to TV ratings, the NFL dwarfs anything on television that doesn’t have “American” and “Idol” in the title, making any bad news regarding the league a trifle awkward for networks that rely on it.

Still, assuming the fall drags on without a labor deal and the looming shadow of a disrupted 2011 season, broadcasters analyzing the NFL’s usual menagerie — the Lions and Bears, Falcons and Rams — might be guilty of ignoring one sizable animal: That great big Pink Elephant in the room.