The NFL is a habit America just can’t kick

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Go ahead. Stop watching the NFL. I dare you.

Go on, change the channel. Live up to all the threats I’ve read on Twitter pages, the ranting I’ve seen in the blogs, the national cries for a fan boycott that would hasten the end to this zebra madness. Start ignoring NFL games on Thursday night and continue through next Monday night, paying no attention to anything on television remotely resembling a professional game being officiated by amateurs.

Blow off the national pastime, spurn its sponsors and partners, send this week’s television ratings into a nose dive, the numbers plopping directly on the manure-covered shoes of Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Right. Never happen. You won’t do it. I won’t do it. We can’t do it. We can’t take our eyes off the one league that is perfectly suited to the modern American lifestyle, and the folks who run this league know it.

The reason NFL owners have had the nerve to lock out regular officials and cause constant chaos is because they can. The reason they are willing to damage the integrity of their product is because they know they’re not damaging the integrity of their business.

They’ve got us, and they know it. They run the most-watched league in this country — nothing else is even close — and they know that even a little unfairness isn’t going to change that. If anything, the officiating controversies in the season’s first three weeks have helped them. Witness Sunday night’s game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, which attracted an average of eight million more viewers than the competing Emmy Awards.

The NFL is so perfectly suited for television, it even overshadows a night honoring the best of television. The NFL is so perfectly positioned as mainly a once-a-week event on Sunday, millions of lives are planned around it. It is the most easily understood league for gamblers. It is the most easily managed league for fantasy players. It’s the best sport to watch on weekends, the best sport to discuss during the week, and finishes its season with an event that deserves to be called Super.

And we’re going to give all that up to protest the fact that bad officiating makes our favorite chaos more chaotic, and our favorite three hours last a little longer? Are you kidding me? Even on Monday night, one of the lowest points in league history was good for business. Immediately after the ESPN telecast of the Seattle Seahawks’ wrongly being awarded a game-winning touchdown on the final play against the Green Bay Packers, ESPN’s “SportsCenter” drew the largest audience in the history of “SportsCenter.”

The NFL owners know this, and have long and shamefully capitalized on this. While their business is football, their game is extortion, and they’ve been doing it forever — using our love for their league as a weapon against us, fattening their pockets with all sorts of nonsensical behavior and daring us to do something about it.

You want to buy season tickets? You have to pay for meaningless exhibition games. You can’t afford to support your team in person? Then you risk having your team blacked out on television. You don’t want your tax money to support your local owner? Then you might lose your team entirely.

A form of that last ploy has been occurring in Los Angeles for more than 15 years, with the league using the vacancy here as a constant threat to fans in small markets such as Minnesota and Jacksonville. Of course, for this to work, the league has needed Los Angeles to play along, and admirably we have not, establishing that the NFL needs us more than we need the NFL, the first time that has happened anywhere in many years.

But even here, let’s not kid ourselves. We may not need eight games a week in an expensive downtown palace, but Los Angeles fans embrace every moment on television, and every chance to go to Las Vegas for betting, and every fantasy league that fills our offices. Even though Los Angeles is far too sophisticated to believe it needs an NFL team for its self-worth, the ratings show that this is indeed one of the nuttiest NFL towns around.

We’re hooked. America is hooked. The NFL owners are the dealers. They can cut their product in almost any fashion and we’re buying. They can continue to lock out their officials in a labor dispute that is resulting in a substandard product because they know that while we say we care, we really don’t. While America’s sports fans have been apoplectic for 24 hours over the Monday night injustice, these same fans can’t wait to see how it will all look when the Ravens host the Cleveland Browns on Thursday.

While we’ve spent these last hours running through the streets screaming, the owners have kept quietly leaning against a wall in an alley, smiling, waiting for us to return with shrugs and sheepish grins. This is still the NFL, they will say, extending their cheapened wares in unwavering hands. You want it or not?

They can ask the question, because they know the answer.