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What happens to America – and the NFL – if there's no football?

An NFL lockout could begin Friday, endangering the 2011 season. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League both struggled after they canceled seasons due to labor strife. How might the NFL weather such a storm?

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Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones arrives at a hotel in Chantilly, Va., Wednesday, for a meeting with all 32 NFL owners. Negotiations between player and owners to avoid a lockout continued nearby.

AP

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What if NFL labor talks break down Thursday and football owners lock out their players?

On one hand, lack of agreement by the Thursday midnight deadline wouldn't preclude more negotiations between rich players and even richer owners over the $9 billion chunk of change that is the league's annual honey pot.

But a lockout puts the 2011 NFL season into question. And that prospect is one that the NFL deeply wants to avoid, worried that any lost games – or an entirely lost season – could cost the league its status as the unrivaled king of the American sports landscape.

But would it?

In a press conference before the Super Bowl last month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said pro football was not immune to the kind of fan backlash that struck Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League in the years after they lost seasons to labor disputes.

“I have said repeatedly that the fans want football and if we are not successful in reaching an agreement that [backlash] will be toward the commissioner, toward the clubs, toward the players, toward everyone involved,” Mr. Goodell said Feb. 4.

Baseball needed a steroid-induced home run chase to recover from canceling the last two months of its regular season and the World Series in 1994. Hockey has only now begun to recover from its 2004-2005 lockout year, boosted by rule changes to make the game higher scoring and the emergence of stars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

Yet the NFL's connection to modern America might be so deep that it can weather labor troubles better than baseball and hockey did. The once-a-week Sunday ritual, the devotion to fantasy football leagues, and the fascination with the gladiatorial nature of pro football makes it a sport that is difficult to replace.

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