Sports

The Bleak Forces Behind Deshaun Watson’s Slap on the Wrist

This self-made disaster was coming from a mile away.

Watson in helmet and pads pointing to the sky in gratitude with both arms, field goal uprights visible in the background
The lucky guy celebrating at Cleveland Browns training camp on July 30, in Berea, Ohio. Nick Cammett/Getty Images

At least 24 women filed lawsuits against Deshaun Watson, alleging sexual misconduct. The women are massage therapists who accused the NFL quarterback of sexualizing their sessions with him in various unwanted ways—trying to bring his genitals into contact with the therapists and masturbating until he ejaculated during a massage, for example. A grand jury in Texas, where Watson used to play for the Houston Texans, declined to bring charges against him in March. The Cleveland Browns traded for him that month and gave him a fully guaranteed $230 million contract. Watson had settled all but one of the lawsuits by the start of this week. And on Monday, the last shoe dropped, or maybe it is more accurate to say that it failed to drop: An arbitrator suspended Watson for just six games of the 2022 season. The NFL is widely reported to have wanted at least a yearlong, indefinite suspension. Instead, Watson will be in the lineup by mid-October. It will basically be a paid vacation, thanks to the ghoulish mastery of Watson’s reps and the Browns’ front office. In the first year of Watson’s contract, almost all of the money is in the form of a signing bonus and thus not subject to forfeiture like a typical NFL game check. He’ll lose a few hundred thousand dollars, pending an NFL appeal that may or may not come. Even if the league pushes back and gets more games, Watson will soon be free and clear with almost all of his contract money.

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A six-game suspension is almost unfathomably light, even in a league that has a reputation for going easy on misconduct against women. Watson’s case is exceptional not just because of the number of accusers involved, but because its outcome is not even a reflection of the usual charge against the NFL in these cases. The common refrain is that the NFL cares less about protecting women than it cares about other acts that have netted similar or longer suspensions than Watson’s: smoking weed, using performance enhancers, betting on NFL games, or conspiring to deflate footballs, for example. The league’s judicial process has historically provided ample evidence that whether punishments are coming directly from commissioner Roger Goodell or from an arbitrator, the NFL is liable not to punish repugnant behavior. In this case, the league wanted a big suspension, if not for altruistic reasons than because the league knew how bad this outcome would look. The arbitrator who decided on six games is a former federal judge, Sue L. Robinson, jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association. The league tried to deliver a small measure of accountability rather than the microscopic one it ultimately got. It just didn’t succeed.

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Why did Watson skate? It isn’t because Goodell doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Even if only for image maintenance, the NFL wanted a bigger chunk of games. But that does not let the NFL off the hook. It also does not mean all of the fault with the short suspension lies with the arbitrator, whom both management and labor asked to resolve the length of the suspension. At core, Watson will soon be under center for the Browns because the NFL spent years laying two sets of tracks that led straight to this decision and will soon lead the league beyond it. One was a disciplinary system that did not come down hard on violence against women for many years, and which complicated the NFL’s efforts to win a workplace dispute with Watson when it became clear that one of the best, most famous players in the NFL deserved a long, long break away from the game. The other was cultural. The NFL and its giant media industry cultivated an environment where any player as good as Watson can be two things at once—a hero whom fans adore and a commodity that teams crave—and where any inconveniences the real world might impose on those roles are just those: inconveniences. Watson did not get a light punishment because the NFL doesn’t care. He got one because the NFL is a universe where “caring” is not the point.

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The contradictory thing about Robinson’s report is that she seems to generally agree with the NFL that Watson behaved horrendously toward his accusers. “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” she writes at one point. She writes that “it is difficult to give weight” to Watson’s wholesale denial not just of any criminal conduct, but of ever having so much as gotten an erection during one of the massages in question. She finds that by the NFL’s definition of sexual assault in its code of conduct, which is “unwanted sexual contact with another person,” Watson committed sexual assault. But Robinson calls Watson’s acts “non-violent sexual assault.” It is a mind-bending phrase. Can any sort of sexual assault be “non-violent”? Is there a way to breach consent and not be violent? Of course not. It is an inherently violent act, whether it involves blood and bruises or not. But to read Robinson’s decision, the NFL’s past laxness toward overt violence made it difficult for her to square the league’s desired punishment of Watson as a matter of workplace policy. “By ignoring past decisions because none involve ‘similar’ conduct, however, the NFL is not just equating violent conduct with non-violent conduct, but has elevated the importance of the latter without any substantial evidence to support its position,” Robinson says. The NFL decided that it cared about this player violating women, but because it hadn’t acted accordingly in the past, it couldn’t impose the punishment it wanted.

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It is so dystopian. Bleakly, it fits with how the NFL works and how it is covered. When the grand jury declined to indict Watson, the league’s most prominent “insider” reporter, ESPN’s Adam Schefter, regurgitated a talking point from Watson’s camp that Watson had welcomed a police investigation because he knew “the truth would come out.” (Schefter followed up that the tweet was “poorly worded.”) Many league reporters spent the subsequent days reporting on how this team or that team had spent months running checks on Watson, who had requested a trade from the Texans before the previous season. Teams wanted this information in the public domain, so that if they traded for Watson, they could point to the careful, deliberate, empathetic legwork they had performed. There were many days of rumors about the teams that might convince Watson to waive his no-trade clause. They were courting him—and in their world, why not? He’s one of the best passers in the NFL. The Browns won the sweeps. Schefter was early with the details.

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Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have contorted themselves to defend both the trade and the player. In March, they made sure to tell the press that they’d checked with their two daughters to make sure getting Watson was OK with them. On Monday, they said Watson had shown remorse. But Watson has maintained a complete denial of any wrongdoing, and it is not clear at all where he has said anything in the neighborhood of “sorry,” even in vague terms. He said once that he regretted that the story had “triggered” people. Maybe he didn’t do anything wrong and is, in fact, the victim of one of the most detailed, collaborative extortion plots in the history of the world, for which he’s agreed to settle about two dozen claims. Maybe the Haslams are making things up in a spin campaign. It is hard to know.

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On the internet and in the press, the overwhelming response to the six-game suspension has been outrage. But you can already find signals of how the story will shift. An Akron newspaper headline said that the suspension length was the club’s “first victory of 2022.” When he took to the field at training camp on Monday, within hours of the decision, he got cheers. Afterward, fans thronged him for autographs. It was as if he’d come back from a torn ACL. In NFL terms, he’d conquered adversity. This sort of adulation for a player in Watson’s position is not new. Just a few months ago, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got a glowing sendoff into retirement. Most (though not all) of the retrospectives on his career made zero or glancing mention of two sexual assault allegations he faced earlier in his career. The NFL is a world in which an athlete can skirt a story like this with time.

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The circus that has followed Watson is extraordinary, though. Some of it owes to the quantity of the allegations. The NFL was not wrong when it argued before the arbitrator that it has never encountered anything like it. Some of it also comes down to the position Watson plays. An elite quarterback in the modern, increasingly pass-happy NFL is the most valuable player in U.S. sports. The story gains more steam in our current moment in time, when more than a few people will not only not mind the allegations against Watson, but will come to view him as a persecuted prophet. There is quite a lot of that going around in American culture, and it will extend in time to a star QB. Someone’s going to wear a Watson jersey to his first game and hold up a sign that just says “INNOCENT.” O.J. Simpson thinks it’s time we all get off Watson’s case, because we are not just living in an endless culture war but also in a simulation.

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All of it is a consequence, in some way or another, of being a league that makes everything a spectacle. The NFL owns an entire day in the American week and has usurped more and more of the sports calendar over time. The draft is a spectacle. Free agency is a spectacle. Even the league’s schedule release, by which time every team already knows its home and away opponents, is a spectacle. It all comes off as a big show because the NFL makes its best players into not just sports heroes, but TV stars. The league is a soap opera, and one of the only ones for which viewers do not already know the outcome. It is why so many people watch NFL games on networks that pay so, so much money to air them. It is why Schefter has so many Twitter followers. It is why Watson makes so much money. It is why the NFL is so protective of its image, and why it long tried to minimize the worst conduct of people in its ranks. The trouble with being a 365-day-a-year show is that even an organization as powerful as the NFL cannot just flip a switch when real life demands to intrude from time to time. At some point, it is less a sports league than its own twilight zone. Watson simply plunged the league into a kind of chaos it built all on its own.

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