The players were the last to know. Pro football fans long ago realized they could be replaced, by other fans willing to pay higher prices caused when supply gets gang-tackled by demand.

Before replacement teams in the NFL, there were replacement franchises. It's Cleveland to Los Angeles to Anaheim if you're keeping score about the Rams. The Raiders are the only outfit that answers a wakeup call with a forwarding address.

Washingtonians are late in coping with the dreaded replacement stadium. Pitting one area against the other is how owners either get new playpens or sweetheart deals on old ones. Somewhere down the line, we may see replacement television in the NFL: cable for free.

It was the hired hands' turn to confront reality in the NFL's 68th season. The scary lesson Realskins and players from 27 other striking teams learned after 24 payless days was this: one strike and you're out.

"No one gives up money and power for the fun of it," former union executive director Ed Garvey had emphasized to his troops before the strike five years ago.

That 57-day stoppage was a failure, many within the union claimed. Unless the courts provide relief, or a mighty lever against management to negotiate, the proper description for the futility of this effort may not yet exist.

About two weeks ago, shortly before the the first round of scab games, union leader Gene Upshaw told an aide: "They {the owners} can't kill me, I'm already dead {of exhaustion from travel and keeping headstrong players in line}."

The weeks of bitter and prolonged dialogue, in private and in the media, now can be reduced to one imaginary scenario.

Neal Olkewicz to Jack Kent Cooke: "We're outta here."

Cooke into the phone five seconds later: "Yo, Skip."

Who really pushed whom into the strike would be interesting to determine, but not all that important just now. The owners have shown the players what most of them probably should have sensed all along: victory is more in the court than at the bargaining table.

Upshaw insists the players have the owners where they want them. But don't the well-heeled owners also have an advantage in court? They have the reason to stretch this antitrust case as long as possible, and the power to keep the union effort weak.

By working without a contract, teams no longer are obliged to remove union dues from each player's check. Cooke is not likely to say to his paymaster: "Would you help dear Gene Upshaw and check dues off until this unpleasantness gets settled?"

It also will be a surprise if the defection from the union is the size of a trickle instead of a flood. All but the most loyal undoubtedly are asking: what have Upshaw and his thinkers done for me lately? Bargaining didn't work, the strike was a disaster I might never recover from, now they want me to bankroll a court case I might not benefit from for 10 years, if ever?

So what's ahead?

Probably, both the owners and players should fret about a kind of replacement foreign to most of them. That would be replacement hearts. How many fans, upset at both sides, will switch affections to some other pleasure?

Fan resentment is likely to be less this time than after the 1982 strike. Or at least in towns with teams that kept winning. The Scabskins were among the replacement players who lifted the won-lost percentage during the strike.

The abuse level by home fans for returning regulars may well be as brief as it is high. Forgiveness will start with the first touchdown; it will continue through the first victory and become complete with the first playoff success.

Television advertisers were unable to find a quick alternative to scab ball; the real stuff surely will keep them in line.

The worst losers in the ordeal, I suspect, are not the ones who seem most obvious. The stars are hurt by a strike, but don't suffer. If John Elway drops $200,000-plus, as estimates claim, he can make that up with endorsements and public appearances.

Shed no tears for Jay Schroeder, whose price for television interviews Thursday night was a plug for his new restaurant venture. If a famous player could not survive this strike, he probably cannot manage the rest of his life either.

Marginal players lose in strikes. Absence causes coaches to forget why they were useful. Also, coaches whose stature was enhanced by brilliant play from replacement players may well cut second-line strikers to keep them.

I think each scab player, even those injured in practice or in games, won. He got the chance he wanted, the one that might not have come at any other time and in any other way. The subs who make regular teams should be tough enough to handle the resentment.

Besides, football teams have about a 23 percent turnover each year. Very few players involved in Strike II also survived Strike I.

The most likely long-term losers, I believe, are players cut by teams before the season who would not cross picket lines and become scabs. Most have dropped back a step in the line for NFL employment, behind returning regulars and also replacements who played well.

One positive post-strike outcome might be the owners bankrolling a form of fairly sophisticated minor-league football. The Ed Rubberts and Anthony Allens would be fun to watch, as well as immediately availabe in the future if the real players get contrary.

One pre-strike gesture I would like to see resumed. I hope players take it upon themselves to meet at midfield just before the kickoff of all future games and shake hands. Every player, not just the captains.

I saw that solidarity shake as defiant, to the owners, but more as a nice reminder that a game -- not war -- was about to take place. Keep it up, guys. Youngsters can learn there is not hate under those helmets; you know it's one thing management cannot suddenly whisk away.