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opinion

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield watches teammates warm up in Cleveland on Jan. 9.David Richard/The Associated Press

This week, the NFL showed how to pull off a reputational coup in three easy steps.

First, you target the new leader you’d like to put into power, as well as the old leader you want rid of.

A bunch of the teams in the NFL aren’t happy with their quarterback. Few ever are. Looking around, the best available talent this off-season was Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans.

Watson is a gifted athlete. He’s also been accused of inappropriate conduct and sexual assault by 22 massage therapists. Those civil cases are pending.

But unless there’s video, a small thing such as multiple alleged crimes is not going to get between a sports team, its fans and their heroic quest for civic glory.

So step 1a: Wait until any potential criminal charges have been dropped because of the unlikelihood of conviction.

Step 1b: Pause for a beat and trust the news cycle to cleanse all memory.

Step 1c: Carry on as though nothing’s happened.

The second phase is the most crucial. In order to make room for Watson, you have to get rid of your previous team leader. You can’t have a bad guy replacing a nice guy. That doesn’t look so great in the game-day program.

There’s no laundering Watson’s reputation until he can play again. So your nice guy has to also become a bad guy or, at least, a compromised guy.

This is how within the space of a few days, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield went from the lovable doofus on the insurance ads to an emotionally tone-deaf whiner who was tearing his team apart.

This may or may not be true. But one thing’s for sure – the timing’s convenient. You want an excuse to get rid of one specific person and then, all of a sudden, he’s diseased.

All it takes is a couple of anonymous quotes and a bunch of speculative dot-connecting from the football media. Remember that the next time you find yourself wishing you were famous.

So what did the Browns’ executive team learn from Shakespeare? If you want to kill your local sports Caesar, it goes more smoothly if you start the stabbing before anyone gets to the Senate.

With Mayfield’s reputation neutralized, Cleveland is now free to sign Watson to one of the biggest deals in the NFL – US$230-million over five years.

“We have done extensive investigative, legal and reference work over the past several months to provide us with the appropriate information needed to make an informed decision about pursuing [Watson] and moving forward with him as our quarterback,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said in a statement on Sunday.

You’ll notice, a) that’s some good dictionary English there, and, b) it doesn’t actually say or mean anything.

This is the dirty business of sport no one wants to have a rational discussion about. There’s plenty of yelling about it, but that always ends up with everyone agreeing to call it a draw and keep watching football.

Watson hasn’t been charged with a crime. None of the allegations against him have been tested in civil court.

If everyone accused of something were no longer allowed to work, electricity grids would collapse. We have courts because we’ve agreed that randomly polling the popular mood is not the best way to test guilt.

However, it does not follow that an entertainment business must continue to employ entertainers whom its audience finds abhorrent.

And it doubly does not follow that if that entertainment business chooses to feature someone of dubious character, it also gets to continue braying about how it is a champion of the little guy.

But that never stops anyone.

If there’s a little guy in this story, it’s those 22 women. They’re the ones fighting a one-man corporation. He is backed by a larger conglomerate, which in turn is backed by a far larger one than that. And all of them are as nothing to the system that exists above it all.

The system in this case isn’t a bunch of amoral plutocrats plotting to undermine the public trust. It’s us. It’s all the people who like having something to watch on Monday nights.

The NFL has survived so many scandals because it, its players and its customers are in agreement about what actually matters – having fun.

That’s what’s been chosen here – a lot of aggregate entertainment over the real-life concerns of a few people who are strangers to us.

Among the truths the past couple of years have taught us, one is that North Americans will prioritize fun over most things. They won’t do it at the risk of their own safety. They won’t choose fun if they are made to feel doing so causes active, serious harm to others in their own community.

But if you can convince them that whatever injury they are doing is small enough, diffuse enough and distant enough so as not to directly implicate them, they will choose fun.

If that means a little rule breaking, so be it. Those were bad rules (as opposed to the rules I like, which are good rules). If a few people I don’t know end up getting hurt, well, I can’t be responsible for everyone, can I?

Sports leagues didn’t invent this species of moral relativism, but they have figured out how to use it.

In the olden times, if one of your guys got caught doing something awful, you hushed it up. If you got caught doing that, you denied it. If you got caught denying it, you called the whole thing a misunderstanding.

These days, leagues no longer push against that river. If your guy gets caught, you call the cops. If they won’t take it, let the lawyers have it. There’s no point in trying to exculpate your problem employees. The cover-up is always worse than the crime.

Instead, you push the responsibility back on your customers. You give them half-an-excuse to look past whatever it is – sex assaults, concussions, game-fixing, bad actors, dirty money, etc., etc.

It doesn’t need to be much of an excuse at all. It just needs to be the bones of one. Depending on their sympathies, people will put the flesh on it themselves.

Then you ask them: “Do like fun? Y/N”

And you trust that people will always say “Yes” to fun.