The collapse of the National Football League players' strike tells us something about this country, and the message is not good. It is that shoddiness sells and standards just don't mean what they once did to the customers, the citizens of this country.
I say this not because I'm convinced that the pros were justified in all of their demands. But they are not the first union to lose because the consumers were not nearly as insistent as they might have been on the quality of the product they were buying.
A few years back, The Newspaper Guild local at The Washington Post called a strike but did not attempt to shut down the paper. Our theory was that by ''withholding our excellence'' we would signal the readers that there were serious unresolved issues at their favorite paper, and management would be so embarrassed by the inferior product they were selling that they would negotiate a good contract.
Wrong. The readers found the wire-service stories that replaced our sparkling prose quite adequate for their needs, and we came crawling back to work without achieving our contract goals.
The football players were beaten because the customers -- both the fans in the stadiums and the TV networks -- were ready to accept the hastily assembled subs as legitimate proxies for their favorite teams. Sure, crowds were down and the TV audience shrank. But by the second week, an average of 36,000 spectators turned out for the phony games. And no one hollered ''fraud'' at the NFL owners who dressed up the rinky-dinks in the familiar team uniforms or the TV networks that said, ''This is the game. Take it or leave it.''
Had there been such an outcry, the strike would have had a chance. Because the fans did not insist on the best, they were peddled what was plainly mediocre.
This isn't the first time we've been shown this. If you want another example from the world of sports, you need look no farther than the current World Series, with half the games being played in a stadium that is obviously unsuited for baseball.
The Metrodome in Minneapolis is a travesty of a ballpark; it's the only place I've ever walked out feeling cheated by baseball. The synthetic surface is stretched to trampoline tautness, making a ball that is chopped downward anywhere between the baselines a possible high-bouncing double. The lights reflecting off the plastic dome create such terrible distortions that a routine fly ball can drop at the best outfielder's feet for a triple.
If the baseball commissioner cared about the quality of the game, he would order the Minnesota Twins to play their postseason games at Comiskey Park or Tigers Stadium, on the natural grass and under the blue sky, as God and Abner Doubleday intended. But the same commissioner who has banned future postseason games at Wrigley Field, because the absence of lights means the games can't be prime-time TV attractions, countenances the parody of baseball that is played in the Metrodome.
Why? Because the public accepts it. There's no penalty for mucking up the game. Does this tolerance of shoddiness in our two mass-entertainment sports tell us something about where we are as a country? I'm afraid it does.
All the talk about ''restoring America's competitiveness,'' about ''the search for excellence,'' about ''quality circles'' in the factories, and advertising slogans boasting that ''the pride is back'' -- all this implies the existence of recognized standards. But who believes that Americans are more exacting in our demands on the assembly line or in the office than we are of the gridiron or the diamond?
Everything we know about ourselves argues to the contrary. Football coaches and baseball managers are far more likely to be fired for failure than are insurance executives or auto engineers. The acceptance of second-rate football and synthetic baseball tells me that this nation really has gone soft in the standards by which it judges itself.
Yes, I know, there are encouraging signs in other areas of national life. The concern that's expressed about the quality of schools, from kindergarten through college, is encouraging. So is the search for a cleaner environment, for better designed and more energy-efficient buildings.
But as long as the popular culture accepts second-rate standards, there's little hope of making genuine excellence the criterion in more important areas. Including politics and government.
Every hack politician in the land must have been pleased to see TV viewers by the millions gazing at World Series games in the Metrodome and thousands of fans paying to watch amateurs play professional football. It encourages them to believe that you don't have to be good to be in politics or government; you just have to be competitive with the other guy.
The toughest thing you can say about the United States is that we get what we deserve. If we're going to lift standards, all of us have to pick up our own share of the load.