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Stewards replace barricades after they were knocked over by supporters outside Wembley Stadium in London, during the Euro 2020 soccer championship final match between England and Italy on July 11, 2021.David Cliff/The Associated Press

It seems ridiculous now, but as scandals go Deflategate was a big deal.

It prompted the NFL to launch a multimillion-dollar forensic investigation. It took up the time of not one, but two U.S. District Courts. It made Tom Brady a villain. (Until he won the next Super Bowl, which made him a hero again. America likes winners, but it loves a winner who got away with it.)

This was a scandal about air pressure. That’s it. No one was threatened. Nothing approaching criminality was alleged. You’d be hard-pressed to prove a single feeling was hurt. Just deflated balls and how they impacted one man’s performance.

For that, Deflategate launched thousands of column inches.

January, 2015. That was the high-water mark of the sports scandal as harmless greaser of the news-cycle wheel. War in Syria too heavy for you? Well then, friend, come on over to ESPN and we’ll tell you a story that is lurid and filled with beautiful millionaires, and that has no impact on your life or anyone else’s. Just put a head on our shoulder and let us yell at you for an hour about pounds per square inch and why they matter.

That’s not the way sports scandals work anymore. They’ve been optimized so that they can be more fully absorbed into the operation.

If one theme defined the overarching world of big-time sports in 2021, it wasn’t COVID-19 (though that’s the early hot tip for 2022). It was a loss of faith. Loss of faith in the institutions, in the people who run them and, occasionally, the stars who play the games.

This has not translated into fewer people watching (the TV numbers are up), but more people are hate-watching. For now, no one has abandoned this secular church. They’re just grumbling through the sermon.

Still, that may not be good for business in the long run. It seems wise to have a pre-emptive bloodletting, just to leak off some of the aggro.

And so welcome to the new era of depressingly real scandals infecting just about every sport.

Sex scandals. Racism scandals. Abuse of power scandals. Criminal assaults, cover-ups, institutional bullying and cheating on an industrial scale. They really do have it all.

Don’t want to get vaxxed? Fake it. Got caught? Lie about it. Got caught lying? Blame the media.

But so much bad behaviour all at once tends to overload the outrage capacity of the fan base. So it gets repurposed into content. It drives the news cycle far more reliably than scores or the hot stove.

This may be why there have been apocalyptic death cults with fewer HR problems than your average major league these days.

Scandals are especially fruitful for the media, who have less and less access to the central workings of sports power. What do you do when someone throws you out of the castle? You start throwing things over the wall.

As a bonus, these stories fully engage the most basic fan instinct: to take a side.

But now you’re not just choosing whether you like the blue-shirt guys better than the red-shirt guys. You’re announcing a moral choice in the public square. A great sports scandal allows nobodies such as you and me to be the heroes of the story.

You have a few thoughts on how the NHL handled that one, and you’re going to broadcast 30 or 40 of them on social media. Then you’re going to flake out on the couch. Maybe watch the hockey game.

Even what should have been the fun scandals – “Why are the Olympics in Tokyo when it’s so hot?” – had a hysterical edge. The thrust wasn’t “look at these poor, sweaty saps.” It was, “someone is going to die [we hope] and it’s important we know exactly who’s to blame before that happens.”

The scandals are coming so fast and thick that none of them can survive for much more than a week in the public consciousness. Having had so much practice at it recently, sports organizations know how to juke and jive their way out of one.

First principles: do not deny. Denial is Deflategate-era thinking. Never deny what you don’t know for absolute sure. Instead, immediately transfer responsibility to a third party. Usually, that’s a blue-chip law firm. Let it wet a towel and lay it over the fire. With any luck, it’ll stop smoking by the time people wander back to see what happened.

If things get too hot, fire somebody. Executives and coaches used to get fired because the team was crap. They get fired now because somebody in their employ did something awful and they were too busy golfing to deal with it. Different rules, same outcome.

If an apology is going to do it, then apologize. But be clear that the apology does not mean you’re taking responsibility. You didn’t know. Nobody told you. Plausible deniability.

While this process is ongoing, you will take your lumps. Every small advance in the story starts a new round of recriminations. But you will come to realize that the motivation of your critics is not disgust. If it were, people would have stopped tuning in. The motivation is delight in watching the people in charge squirm. Which means your livelihood and business aren’t in danger. The only thing at risk is your ego.

In the interim, stop using e-mail. Never text. Face-to-face conversations only, preferably with cut-outs. Just like Al Qaeda does it.

Parallel with that, go deep on the causes. No league can have enough causes these days. They make people happy and they are great smokescreens when things go wrong (which they will).

Above all, accept the new rules – that your lordly place in the social order is no longer protection. It just makes you a target. All your bad deeds will probably come out at some point and sink you. So for now, just focus on what matters: making money.

Because as long as everyone’s getting rich, nothing ever really has to change.

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