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NFL still exploring flexible "Monday Night Football' games

It might seem logical to NFL fans that Monday Night Football should be allowed a more flexible schedule, especially at the end of the season when the so-called marquee games are more in danger of being duds. Apparently it also seems logical to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who _ to the networks' surprise _ announced at the owners meetings Monday he was going to try to make a less-fixed schedule happen.

That doesn't mean it will.

Though discussions on the oft-visited issue are expected to go further than ever in the coming days, CBS and Fox aren't going to give up even one game without a fight. Or perhaps, if one is offered, a fat check. And they aren't interested in discussing changes that wouldn't benefit them in some way. Both would consider any change to the scheduling made without consent to be a violation of their contracts, which still have four seasons to go and appear to be far more lucrative for the league than the networks.

With advertising dollars more scarce than ever, Fox says it wrote off nearly $400-million in losses last year just on its NFL contract. Disney-owned ABC is estimated to have lost more than $200-million. CBS has said its operations are streamlined and in reasonable shape but has no desire to give an inch either.

ABC has reason to want more flexibility; so does Tagliabue. For many reasons _ from a changing booth to a changing audience _ Monday Night Football has lost much of its luster. Its ratings fell to an all-time low last year for the second straight season, with 11.5 percent of the 100-million-plus U.S. households with televisions tuned in on a given Monday night. (By comparison, Fox averaged 10.2 for all Sunday afternoon games and CBS a 10.)

As proposed by Tagliabue, adding flexibility to the last four weeks of the season "would better serve the fans," ABC vice president Mark Mandel said. "I think the fans need and deserve to have the big games played in prime time. I'm pretty sure that's exactly what the NFL agrees with."

The league has not said what it will offer CBS and Fox. Discussions probably will get complicated, and not just because CBS and Fox are fussing. Disney-owned ESPN, which has a Sunday night schedule as inflexible as its sister network's, wants in too.

"We would like the same consideration," ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle said.

LESSON LEARNED: Former South Carolina coach-turned-new CBS analyst Eddie Fogler committed a major faux pas when he scribbled an obscenity on the telestrator during a timeout Sunday in the Georgia-Southern Illinois men's NCAA Tournament game. (While viewers didn't see it, those watching in-house monitors at the United Center in Chicago did.)

The incident marred what otherwise was a solid weekend for the rookie analyst. Fogler never was scheduled to work the tournament past the first two rounds, so it's too early to say if the incident will impact his future with the network.

BOB'S BACK: After a few weeks to recover from his duties as NBC's Olympic host, Bob Costas is back for a second season of On the Record, his HBO interview show. The weekly series returns at 10:30 p.m. Thursday; scheduled guests include Bob Knight, Alex Rodriguez and John Thompson.

LAKEWOOD REDUX: Fans of the Spartans can watch the Class 4A boys basketball champions win their first state title against Belle Glade Glades Central at noon Sunday on Sunshine.

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