WE HAVE FOR years accepted that nothing can stop the NFL. Not criminal behavior by its employees, not performance-enhancing substances, not reduced accessibility, not drunks in the parking lot.

This singular American beast, insulated from life as most of us know it, is accustomed to taking what it wants and waving it in the faces of its fans, secure in knowing they will stick around.

What irritates, though, is the league's cavalier attitude about itself and its utter disregard for the realities of today, from double-digit unemployment rates to pay cuts to forced work furloughs.

Through it all, the NFL displays the greed and conscience of a heroin kingpin.

Many fans addicted to their team but unable to afford tickets will be locked out this season, as the league has no plans to lift the outdated and punitive TV blackout rule.

If ever a time was right to suspend for at least a year the blackout rule wherein a local team will not be shown on local TV unless the game is announced 72 hours beforehand as a sellout, it's when we're choking on horrible economic conditions.

After nine blackouts last season, spread among the Raiders (three), Lions (five) and Rams (one), it's conceivable that number will more than triple in 2009. A dozen teams, according to a USA Today survey, acknowledge the probability of not selling out every game. Jacksonville concedes it may not sell out any home games, meaning thousands of Jaguars fans will pay because too many chose food over $70 football tickets.


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Though Raiders fans typically anticipate several blackouts each season, the 49ers, a mainstay on local TV, also face the possibility playing games at Candlestick Park that won't be available on Bay Area stations.

So this is a serious problem — for the fan, the individual who in the past bought millions in jackets and caps and jerseys and pennants and bumper stickers. They paid for tickets, paid to park, paid to satisfy a habit.

The NFL, however, is unaffected and, therefore, unmoved. Presented a grand opportunity to extend a goodwill gesture, to serve the community at minimum cost, the NFL shrugs and counts its cash.

Hey, the league's TV money, more than $20 billion through 2013, comes with or without the fans. So what if 10,000 empty seats taunt and mock those who didn't pay up?

Asked recently if the NFL would consider temporarily relaxing its policy, commissioner Roger Goodell said "no" in 11 different languages. This despite admitting the depressed economy poses considerable "challenges" for most NFL teams.

When Fox TV boss Ed Goren, showing his awareness of the circumstances, floated the concept of the league reaching out, maybe by buying small amounts of unsold tickets and donating them to charity, the idea was blasted like a dove daring to fly over Texas.

"There is no consideration being given to amending the blackout policy," league spokesman Brian McCarthy recently told Sports Business Journal.

The league says the policy still sells tickets and that withholding the product gives consumers an incentive to buy. This conveniently ignores the truth, that the issue is not lack of incentive but lack of ability.

So what purpose, really, does the blackout rule serve? Though there were times in the 1970s when half the league's games were blacked out locally, that number has been greatly reduced over the years. Roughly 4 percent have been blacked out since 2004.

And it's not as if thousands who couldn't afford the game on Monday are going to flock to ticket outlets first thing Thursday morning. Many fans already living paycheck-to-paycheck can't line up until payday.

The rule exists now mostly, it seems, to ensure that those who won't or can't pay for games won't or can't see games. That nearly all these folks are middle class or lower makes another statement entirely, one about the NFL's comfort with systematic exclusion and unapologetic elitism.

The NFL could get away with that during the boom years, when countless companies gouging ordinary citizens bought tickets and luxury suites in bunches, the way most of us buy bananas.

But those days are gone. Unless the company referenced is the NFL, which marches not to the beat of its own drum but to that of its dedicated profit machine.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.