Deshaun Watson will sit out 11 games of the 2022 NFL season, rather than the six that an independent arbitrator first leveled against the Cleveland Browns quarterback. Watson’s initial suspension was shorter than the minimum of one year that the NFL wanted, and the circus around him reflected a certain sort of football dystopia. The arbitrator, a former federal judge, found that Watson had committed sexual assault against his massage therapists by the NFL’s workplace definition of the term. But she parsed the difference between “violent” and “non-violent” sexual misconduct, and she found that the NFL had not come down hard enough on previous offenders to justify a yearlong Watson suspension. The NFL argued that it had never seen a player with the bulk quantity of allegations against him—Watson settled about two dozen sexual assault claims—and the arbitrator seemed to agree. The NFL appealed, and the ensuing settlement it reached with its players union called for those five additional games out plus a $5 million fine. OK, then.
Watson will, in standard NFL terms and also the words of his agent, David Mulugheta, “move forward with his life and career.” There will be a rehabilitation, because Watson is really good at throwing the football and the Browns are starved for someone who can chuck it like he can. Plenty of people, maybe most people, will never care for Watson. But he is following a certain playbook, and history says it will work, even if there is no analogous case of an NFL star facing so many different women who said that he violated them. Watson was a unique case for the NFL, because the volume of what so many different women said he did to them was challenging to place into context. That Watson issued a wholesale denial of wrongdoing, mixed in with a couple of vague nonapology apologies, made it more of a brain-buster. It was surreal not just because of what Watson was accused of doing dozens of times, but because of the twilight zone manner in which he and everyone in his camp talked about it in public.
The trouble with focusing on that messaging is that nobody involved cares. The Browns traded for Watson because they wanted to and they could. Team owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam might have more hubris than all but a tiny handful of humans on Earth, but they were not living under a rock for the past year and a half and are not having their first go-round in crisis communications. (Not even close.) They made their move for one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks within days of a criminal investigation closing without charges, but while Watson was still awash in civil lawsuits. He has still yet to explain how it could be that so many women related such similar, harrowing experiences with him under oath. The Browns were thoroughly aware. Then every other face of their organization went about justifying it the only way anyone has been able to justify anything about the trade: with the absolute maximum level of cynicism.
It starts, as everything around this story does, with Watson himself. One of the silliest subplots—and I think I do mean silly, because it is best not to give it too much credit—has been Watson’s ongoing effort to admit nothing while appearing to show contrition for some nebulous thing that cannot be named. Watson’s stance when the Browns traded for him was that he did not have any regrets about his actions. He did regret how “the situation” had “triggered” and “affected” people. That was about the size of it. That damned situation had just affected so many people, and Watson was as regretful about that as anyone else.
It was good enough for the Haslams, who have tried to play a part from the beginning in smoothing this all over. When the NFL announced Watson’s initial six-game suspension at the start of August, the Browns’ owners said that Watson was “remorseful.” That was curious, given that Watson had not exactly apologized for anything and had only expressed vague, impersonalized regret in the most qualified terms. It was also curious because the arbitrator, a retired federal judge, said that an aggravating factor in assessing Watson’s actions was that he had demonstrated a “lack of expressed remorse.”
Over the past week, Watson has shapeshifted. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out on Twitter, the height of Watson and his allies’ cynicism revealed itself in how they adjusted their statements around the ultimate resolution of his suspension. On Friday, before starting a preseason game in Jacksonville, Watson gave an apology that was at least conciliatory if nonspecific. He acknowledged some regret, which he’d been loath to do, and said, “I wanna say that I’m truly sorry to all the women that I’ve impacted in this situation. The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position, I would definitely like to have back.”
But six days later, after the league and union finalized his suspension, Watson sounded different when asked why he would accept such a suspension if he hadn’t done anything wrong: “I’ve always been able to stand on my innocence and always said I never assaulted or disrespected anyone, but at the same point, I have to continue to push forward with my life and career,” he said.
His agent, Mulugheta, has been clear that Watson has always been clear, so perhaps anyone who isn’t clear on whether Watson is sorry for anything should just read what he’s said more closely. “Deshaun has always stated he is innocent of sexual assault,” Mulugheta tweeted on Thursday. “Nothing has changed in what he said. He also said he is remorseful, the decisions he made have created this situation.”
Watson will indeed push forward. The public comments he, his camp, and the Browns have made amount to a months-long kayfabe. It is difficult to fathom that everyone saying these things believes them and even harder to fathom that they’re worried about anyone else who doesn’t. They won. Watson got a huge contract, and after a few months away, he will play a long time for the Browns and probably win a lot of games. The gravy train will roll.
Maybe it is because of this knowledge of victory that some truth is starting to seep out. One of Watson’s teammates, offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, has already sounded the customary starting gun in the race to reframe Watson’s, uh, situation as a rallying point for the Browns. “I’m sure, it seems like more than ever: Cleveland against the world,” Bitonio said after Watson got booed during his preseason appearance last weekend. “So we’ll be ready for it.”
Bitonio is frank about how he sees this story: as adversity for the Browns and a continuation of people’s disdain for Cleveland as a sports town, rather than as anything to do with Watson or sexual misconduct. It’s gross, but at least it’s honest. There was less honesty in head coach Kevin Stefanski going on into a microphone about the “incredible empathy” he feels for anyone who took pain from the six-game suspension when the arbitrator issued it. There was less still in the Haslams talking earlier this year about their “compassion” for those people, or in acting as if the trade really came down to their two daughters being OK with them making it.
The Browns, in general, are at least starting to tell us how they really feel. As Jimmy Haslam told reporters on Thursday, “It’s important to remember that Deshaun is 26 years old, OK? He’s a hell of an NFL quarterback, and we’re planning on him being our quarterback for a long time.”
It’s not clear to me if Haslam meant that Watson was too young to understand the weight of his actions in those massage sessions, or if his long, productive playing career to come simply made that not matter. The only certainty is that Haslam is not overly concerned in either event.