Sadly, the Terrell Owens-Nicollette Sheridan "Monday Night Football" episode, now in its sixth day, has turned into a launching pad for every hysterical and self-righteous personal agenda in America.

Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney has called it "about the worst thing I've ever seen," which means Danny really ought to get out more, maybe read a news story datelined "Iraq" for starters.

Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith called the sight of a woman's bare back "pretty close to pornographic," which suggests his exposure is limited to the point of being frightening.

Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy invoked Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case, which is downright irresponsible.

And the NFL claims the whole thing is too much for its moral sensibilities, while at the same time partnering with an erectile stimulant company whose in-game commercials are, well, persistent.

The "Monday Night Football" opening, which concluded with Sheridan, who plays the hot blonde, Edie, on ABC's "Desperate Housewives," jumping into Owens's arms, was either silly or clever, but that's about the extent of it. Put me down for clever. I loved it, for being smart and, yes, a little naughty. And for ABC, looking to make a buck off its two biggest shows, pairing "Edie" with T.O., the biggest star in the NFL these days by a million miles, was a natural.

All this has done is given FCC Chairman Michael Powell reason to put forth is own hysterical agenda.

But let's start this examination with the NFL, which combines sports and entertainment in a smarter package than any entity in the country, but whose hypocrisy knows no bounds. By Tuesday afternoon the NFL had issued a statement assailing the inappropriateness of the "Monday Night Football" opening.

But this is the same league whose Super Bowl broadcast 10 months ago was one extended erection promo, excuse the pun. If it wasn't Levitra it was Cialis and the discussion about four-hour erections. Last I checked, the Super Bowl is telecast during the family hour, on a Sunday evening before 8 p.m., to the largest TV audience in America.

Last I checked, Philadelphia also is one of the NFL's 32 "member clubs." It's not like the Eagles didn't know what was going on when Sheridan showed up for a shoot that must have taken four cameras and at least an hour.

And if Smith and Rooney want to see something a whole lot closer to pornography, all they have to do is click on the Philadelphia Eagles' Web site, as I just did, and go straight to the Eagles Cheerleaders Lingerie Calendar, where the only thing that keeps one young lovely from being completely topless is her own strategically placed three fingers.

Half this country may think it resides in a 1950s-style Pleasantville, as evidenced by our recent elections, but it really doesn't. The NFL certainly doesn't.

I even reject the criticism that the "Edie-T.O." scene is inappropriate for a "Monday Night Football" game that begins at 8 o'clock in the Midwest and 6 o'clock on the West Coast. All these coaches who talk about the horror of having to explain this to their 12-year-olds act as if their kids aren't the ones watching, in the 5 and 6 o'clock hours locally, stuff like "Extreme Dating" and "Elimidate" and "Blind Date" and my favorite, "5th Wheel," where people get together in the "Fifteen Minute Room" and have at it, with tongues and body parts everywhere. This is all pre-prime time, not all of it on cable, aimed at the delicate little people who can't take the sight of "Edie" jumping into T.O.'s arms while fully covered in his uniform, pads included.

See, the issue here is thinly veiled not to see it if you want to.

Mostly, it's about the discomfort level of a lot of folks, some black and some white, of seeing a blond hottie paired with, to use Jimmy the Greek's phrase, "a big, black buck." That's all it's about: people's personal discomfort level, their own issues about who should or should not be hooking up, specifically a white woman and black man. And personally, though Dungy is about the most decent and admirable man I've come to know in 24 years of covering football, I'm not particularly interested in his dating agenda.

Thirty years ago, as Tony Kornhesier is smart to point out, if "Monday Night Football" had aired that opening, there would have been no ABC in the morning. (And let me also point out that Tony and I both get paychecks from ESPN, which is owned by ABC.) Of course, Tony's right. This was "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" for a lot of people. Sixty years ago, the look T.O. gave "Edie" would have landed him in a noose; now, it helps him cash in on a level of celebrity that's rare in the NFL. I'll take that as progress.

If it makes Dungy and Rooney uncomfortable on some level, that's probably good. And if they want to find something more worthy of a rant concerning the treatment of black athletes, they should follow the case of the "friendly" soccer match between Spain and England in Madrid, where the black British players were subjected to monkey chants and worse.

I've been critical of T.O. in this space for being a bad teammate to Jeff Garcia when the two were in San Francisco. I've been critical of T.O. for drawing attention to himself then wondering why he gets so much media attention. Given his past volatility, I'll probably be critical of T.O. again. But mostly as of late, Terrell Owens has been the best player in the league at his position. He's been the heartbeat of an Eagles team trying to overcome three consecutive losses in the NFC championship game. He's elevated his own performance, that of his quarterback Donovan McNabb, and that of his team, which is 8-1 entering Sunday's game against the Redskins in Philly.

Any criticism of T.O. this particular week, particularly as it pertains to the "Monday Night Football" opening, is primarily about the agendas and phobias of the critics, nothing more.