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QUESTION: Why doesn't the National Football League get in trouble for being a lot like a monopoly enterprise?

ANSWER: The NFL is essentially a criminal enterprise. Obviously the NFL will have some problem with this statement, but we are prepared to defend our views in court. ("Your honor, it was a typographical error.") The fact is that the pro football players themselves have sued their own league on grounds that it violates antitrust laws. The U.S. Justice Department last month recommended to the Supreme Court that it take the case and settle some of the messy legal questions that haunt most major sports leagues.Here's the problem: If you want to see professional football in Miami, you have to pay $28 for a cheap seat at Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Dolphins. You cannot bargain or take your business elsewhere. And you probably can't even watch the game on TV, since games are blacked out locally whenever the stadium isn't full - just in case you thought this sports thing was a public service rather than a profit-making enterprise.

The only thing you can hope for is that another entrepreneur will start a new football league with a local franchise. This is a long shot. The TV networks, which supply zillions of dollars to the NFL, don't want to encourage another competing league. Both the World Football League of the 1970s and the United States Football League of the 1980s failed. The USFL sued the NFL, saying it was a monopoly, and technically won the case. But the jury gave the USFL only $1 in damages, saying the major problem was mismanagement, not NFL monopolism.

The NFL players have their own problem with the league: They want to be able to move from team to team. Imagine being an engineer at MIT, graduating with honors and hearing that you've been drafted by Exxon, where you must work the rest of your career.

Someday the NFL - and pro hockey and basketball, and perhaps even some of the labor deals in Hollywood - might be broken up by the Supreme Court. Impossible? You say these sports leagues are too popular and too powerful? Tell it to Ma Bell.

QQUESTION: Why is Christopher Columbus also known as Cristobal Colon, among other names?

ANSWER: Although some people have their names altered from one language to another, hardly anyone has ever had a name as indefinite as . . . you know . . . that guy in 1492.

What did he call himself? "The Admiral," usually. In his own hand he once wrote his name "Xpoual Colon," in which the X is the Latin abbreviation of Christ, which hints at a bit of an ego problem. At birth his name was probably Cristoforo Colombo. Another record says Christofferus de Colombo. Spanish documents call him Cristobal Colon. The name Christopher Columbus is a Latinized version of his name.

Columbus, writes Kirkpatrick Sale in "The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy," was "a man without a settled name, and it is hard not to believe that a confusion, or at least inconstancy, of that kind reflects some sort of true psychological instability."

Columbus was a bizarrely peripatetic figure even by sailor standards. He went bopping around from place to place, trying to get the dough to make his big cruise. He didn't care what people called him. Once he made his discovery, everyone wanted to nab some of the credit - the Spanish were certainly not going to call him by an Italian name!

The ultimate truth is that Columbus was a man without a home. This rootlessness is no doubt one of the reasons it was Columbus, not some other guy, who decided to sail into the great unknown, across what was then called the Ocean Sea.

The Mailbag:

T.H.D. of Falls Church, Va., asks why an automobile's passenger-side mirror says, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear"?

Truly, that is one of the great lines in the English language. It's so shamelessly blunt. It might as well say, "Mirror designed by a total ding-dong."

Surely the reason for this is obvious. As you move away from a mirror the field of view grows smaller. That tiny mirror four or five feet away from the driver would hardly have anything in it if it weren't convex. The convex shape has the unfortunate side effect of making things appear farther away. The safety benefit of the larger field of view is believed to outweigh the danger from the distortion.

Of course, the car could simply have a big, flat mirror over there - but that would be unsightly! And it would be a drag, literally.

1991, Washington Post Writers Group