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opinion

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson takes part in drills during the NFL football team's training camp in Berea, Ohio, on Aug. 1.Nick Cammett/The Associated Press

When the Cleveland Browns decided to give quarterback DeShaun Watson one of the biggest deals in NFL history, they understood they had a problem.

The problem wasn’t that Watson stood accused by dozens of women – mainly massage therapists – of sexual harassment and assault.

The problem was that Watson would almost certainly be suspended during the first year of his deal. How could the Browns promise to pay him to do nothing?

Watson and the Browns figured out a cute workaround. In the first year, he would receive a US$45-million signing bonus against US$1-million in pay. Signing bonuses are not considered part of a player’s salary.

On Monday morning, the NFL’s inflatable hammer came down. Watson will serve a six-game suspension. Since his salary is only a million bucks, the amount of money he loses is US$345,000.

That amounts to less than one-seventh of 1 per cent of Watson’s US$230-million deal.

In regular-person terms, it’s about the cost of a speeding ticket.

I did not think the NFL could possibly become more cynical, but there you go. This was a failure of imagination on my part. If you’re willing to work hard, there’s always room for improvement.

We know how this will play out now. There will be two divergent reactions that have more to do with staking out cultural territory than they do with influencing debate.

Online, the NFL will be shredded. Leading media figures will front this charge. Celebrities will pile in to be disgusted. Athletes who play sports other than football may get involved. A consensus will emerge on the Internet that the way this has been handled is beyond the pale, totally unforgivable and that it’s time to replace real football with flag football.

Out in the real world, it will be as if nothing had happened. Come September, Cleveland’s stadium will be full. NFL TV ratings will be off the charts. Streamers will be lining up to turn the next round of broadcast-rights bidding into a Mega Billions jackpot.

Once Watson returns – and as long as he plays well – this incident will be filed by Browns fans under “unresolved.” Yes, something happened, but none of them can exactly remember what. Their Sunday passion is too important to be ruined by one dolt who can’t keep his hands to himself.

This is the lesson the NFL has learned over the past 10 years of nearly uninterrupted PR crises – that there is no such thing as a PR crisis for the NFL. There may be a lot of yelling and shouting out in the street outside, but the store is still packed.

COVID-19 was an actual crisis because it threatened bottom lines. Every other league freaked out and lost of gobs of money.

What did the NFL do? Nothing. Even when the pandemic was peaking through the end of 2020 into 2021, the NFL pretended COVID wasn’t happening.

How did that turn out? Everyone went along with it. A few health experts tried to pipe up, but they weren’t acknowledged.

Here’s another thing the NFL has learned – that it is difficult-verging-on-impossible to fight a person who is ignoring you. You could try ganging up on him, but no one is big enough to gang up on the NFL. It is America’s pre-eminent institution.

How many members of the White House cabinet can the average American name? How many Dallas Cowboys can they rhyme off? I rest my case.

When the NFL first started getting hit with the concussion crisis (as it turned out, another non-crisis), its reaction was to swing back. It sent commissioner Roger Goodell out to explain how the league was going to change its ways.

Changing its ways meant putting a blue tent on the sideline and not allowing a guy who’d been stretchered off the field on one play to return for the next series. There is only one way to stop concussions in football: stop football. But the NFL was anxious to pretend otherwise.

After it had been shouted into mute confusion, the NFL realized that a strange thing was happening. What it was reading about the state of football did not match up with the lived reality of football. In the papers, football was dying from the grassroots up. In real life, people were still watching, at every level. In fact, audiences grew. The players did not revolt. TV contracts expanded.

Another thing it realized – the less the NFL talked about concussions, the less its critics had to complain about. A lot of sports activism boils down to customer complaints. One reliable way of reducing complaints is daring people to shop elsewhere.

Eventually, that’s what the NFL did. Nobody wanted to shop elsewhere. The same journalists who would lash the league for its quasi-criminal perfidy one day would straight-facedly file game reports the next. The entire enterprise survived on hypocrisy.

So the NFL turned that hypocrisy into its business plan.

The Watson case is a workshopped example. The league hired a retired female judge to lead an investigation. The player and the club did a deal that ensured he would get paid no matter what happened. Everyone waited until nearly all the civil suits against Watson and his former team, the Houston Texans, were settled. Then they came out with this laughable penalty.

Now, the final phase – nothing.

Release a statement and move on. Understand that you’re going to take heat in a lot of op-eds, while also understanding that “heat” in this context does not amount to a warm breeze. The people who read them and nod along with them may not throw a Super Bowl party, but they will attend one if invited. Who doesn’t love nachos on game day? More importantly, most people won’t read them.

Some day, the NFL may be proven wrong. Someone will do something so egregious that the taint of it stains the league and causes a measurable dip in interest in its product.

But given how things are going, I am hard-pressed to think of what that might be.