There's no longer any reason for this football strike to continue. Sunday's schedule of Scab Ball gave both sides reason to return to the bargaining table. The owners have proven to the players that replacements could be found, and the union could not shut down the league. The union can show the attendance figures to prove to the owners that ticket holders do discriminate between The A Squad and the Scab Squads. To avoid the kind of bitter, attenuated strike that would mock any reference to the integrity of the game, now is the right time for the union to recognize that free agency is the diamond necklace that turned into a lead weight, to abandon free agency and challenge the owners to settle all the other issues as rapidly as some owners have bragged they could.

What the players have going for them now is that the owners are frightened how empty seats look on television.

What the owners have going for them now is that players want desperately to play and get paid.

The owners could keep playing Scab Ball. Defections would continue, and the hard line could well force players back en masse without a contract, in effect, busting the union. But the acrid residue might poison the water. What if union stalwarts orchestrated a guerrilla action -- perhaps a one-game wildcat -- during the playoffs? Like Sunday's Scab Ball games, the playoffs themselves would have no integrity, the NFL would be shamed.

The players could stay out. Maybe 30 or 40 percent of them would hold fast the entire season. Then it's not a strike about issues -- but about solidarity. The strikers wouldn't want to talk to the NFL, they'd want to terrorize it. It might as well be Lebanon.

Those of you who saw the alleged Redskins and Cardinals saw a competitively thrilling game. (The real Redskins should note that many of the home fans, the fans the Redskins and their coaches often praise as the best, most loyal fans in all the world, those same fans needed less than 45 minutes of Scab Ball to chant, "Stay on Strike!" loud enough to be heard in Afghanistan.) Here in Washington, in New Orleans and in Denver -- cities without a baseball team to siphon off interest in early fall -- gate attendance was respectable, near 50 percent. In football-crazed Washington and Denver, television ratings for Scab Ball maintained the amazing heights they normally hit for Real Ball.

But throughout the nation the opposite was true. In blue-collar cities like Philadelphia (4,074 attendance), Detroit (4,919) and Buffalo (9,860), hardly anyone came to see butchers and linoleum salesmen dressed up like football players play against plumbers and bar bouncers dressed up like other football players. Shall we dance? Nothing fancy, and a step slow if you please. In the games outside Washington, Denver and New Orleans, the league averaged only 17.7 percent of capacity.

Television ratings tilted more toward the owners. NBC's early games were astoundingly strong, off only 9 percent from two weeks ago's Real Ball. CBS' early games were off 19 percent, perhaps less than expected. But CBS' national doubleheader game, normally Sunday's highest-rated game, was off by an alarming 49 percent, and it was a game between heavyweight draws, the Cowboys and Jets.

The implication is that while people were curious about, and had a proprietary interest in, their local teams' performance, they had marginal concern for the generic Scab League.

But the mere act of playing the games had to be a sobering slap in the face for the union, many of whose members never believed it would actually happen. A striking player not only lost another week's pay, he lost whatever innocence he brought to the picket line. He can no longer trust in the romance of a strike, the notion that it's all for one and one for all, and the owners wouldn't dare try to put on the NFL without us, and even if they did the TV networks wouldn't dare show it. Because they did, and vow to do it again. This strike has passed from the rhetoric to the battlefield phase.

Now the players can see as never before that the owners are serious. Free agency, which would be worth striking for if the players were truly united in its pursuit, haunts the bargaining table like Banquo's ghost. The owners are resolved not to allow it, and have successfully painted the players into a corner by refusing to deal with other issues.

The owners smartly determined that the majority of players have no fire in the belly for free agency. Surveys indicate not even a bare majority of strikers believes passionately in free agency. On Sunday, Mark May estimated that "probably 90 percent" of the strikers would be willing to come off free agency. "Free agency doesn't help me a bit," May said. "Free agency doesn't help most players." Grinning ruefully at the accounting of star players who had already crossed the picket lines, May said, "Of the small amount of players it will help, half of them are already in."

So far the owners have played their cards well. They have forced the strike by refusing to bargain. They've sown doubt in the players' minds and dissension in their ranks by assembling scab teams and playing Scab Ball. They've outfoxed the union by setting free agency up as a straw man, then railing incessantly against it. They're winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the fans, who can't understand why NFL players averaging $230,000 a year could possibly go on strike. They have made the strikers crazy with jealousy by denying them what in their bones, their muscles and their glands they crave most: the game. The owners can crow that they gave the public players who play for the love of the game, not the money. And, in the ultimate irony, because the games count, the strikers had no recourse but to root for the very scabs who've taken their place.

We've come to the juncture in this strike where, amid all this frenzy, the players aren't quite sure why they're still out. If it's pensions and severance and guarantees the players want -- and free agency is just a bargaining chip -- then it's time to toss the chip on the table and call the owners' hand.