So now we know just how committed the NFL is to seeing Deshaun Watson endure stiffer discipline than the six-game suspension an independent arbitrator issued after passing judgment on the star quarterback’s repeated, unwanted sexual advances toward massage therapists.
On Wednesday, the league announced it would move to suspend Watson — whose $230 million US contract makes him the best-paid NFL player in history — for at least a season. The NFL also wants to fine him heavily, and mandate that he undergo therapy before returning to play. News broke just after 4 p.m. ET, in time to lead early evening and late-night sports news shows.
The appeal, made public well before a Thursday morning deadline, looks to sweep aside a ruling by a retired judge, Sue Robinson, whom the NFL and the players association installed precisely for situations like this — to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, and levy level-headed discipline for off-the-field misbehaviour.
This new round of legal jousting prompts fresh questions, though not necessarily for the Browns. We know why they gave Watson a record-breaking contract when they traded for him. They think they’re an elite quarterback away from contending for a Super Bowl.
And not for the league, which is taking a PR beating that won’t subside unless it hits Watson with a sanction more serious than the one Tom Brady triggered for allegedly deflating footballs.
And not even for Robinson, who said her relatively light punishment was in line with league precedent, but said Watson’s behaviour met the definition of sexual assault outlined in the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The question for Watson, who could miss his second straight season over his massage-table antics, and the lawsuits they triggered, is whether he regrets anything.
Now, I mean.
During the March news conference introducing him as a Cleveland Brown, Watson maintained that none of his actions merited remorse or second-guessing.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he told the news conference. “I never did anything that these people are alleging.”
Three months later, upon reflection, he copped to feeling a certain type of regret, compartmentalized and heavily qualified.
“I do have regrets as far as the impact … on the community and people outside of just myself,” he told reporters. “And that includes my family. That includes this organization. That includes my teammates in this locker room that have to answer to these questions.”
So yes, Watson feels horribly for the way the fallout from these lawsuits has cascaded on to the real victims.
Like the Browns front office, which pledged Watson 230 million guaranteed dollars without knowing when their investment might pay off.
And diehard Browns fans. Not the ones conflicted about having Watson on the roster, but the ones who will ignore all his issues if he helps the team win; who would welcome nearly any Faustian transaction that can ease the lingering pain of The Drive and The Fumble.
Or a Browns offence that, with Watson and new wide receiver Amari Cooper, could dominate with a simple formula. Feed Nick Chubb until the defence commits an extra body to stopping the run, then play pitch and catch with Cooper.
When Watson thinks about those folks he, apparently, feels a twinge of… something.
Egregious and predatory
But what plot twists might prompt Watson to take a microscope to his own actions?
If it’s not the six-game suspension Robinson wants to impose, maybe it’s the words she used to describe his conduct.
“It is difficult to give weight to a complete denial when weighed against the credible testimony of the investigators who interviewed the therapists and other third parties,” Robinson wrote, essentially calling Watson a liar.
She also ordered that Watson only receive massages from team-affiliated RMTs, which is basically ordering the Browns to babysit him. Why not just issue him a Theragun and wish him good luck?
Of course, the Browns and their staunchest followers remain committed to their new, elite, expensive quarterback. If you want to know what an image rehab campaign looks like, peruse the Browns’ Instagram feed, where you’ll see Watson posing with young fans, and playing rock-paper-scissors with a grinning grade-schooler.
Would a guy that committed to making kids happy force himself on women?
Framed that way, the answer is “no.”
According to lawsuits and NFL investigators, the answer is, “evidently.”
Cost of protecting the shield
Outside the Browns’ bubble, the prospect of Watson playing this season has fans and critics questioning the league’s priorities. Does the league really want to champion women’s causes, like breast cancer awareness? Or does it want to welcome Watson back after less than half a season under suspension, without paying a fine or undergoing therapy? NFL leadership knows it can’t do both without squandering credibility, which in turn could damage factors the league really values.
Brand equity. TV ratings. Opportunities to grow the audience.
If salvaging all of that means cracking down on Watson, the NFL’s appeal shows it’s willing to use him to, as the saying goes, “protect the shield.”
But the new proposal could prompt moves that keep all parties in court for months. Fans want to know why Watson initially received a lighter sentence than Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley, who will miss the whole season after betting on a Falcons game in which he didn’t play. The union will want to know why Watson deserves a harsher punishment than Dolphins owner Stephen Ross got for tampering, or Patriots owner Robert Kraft received for his own massage spa indiscretions.
Which brings us back to regret.
If we give Watson every benefit of every doubt, assume all 24 of his accusers fabricated their stories, and conclude Watson is the real victim, wouldn’t he still regret something?
His vetting process? His character judgment? His willingness to trust dozens of people who, in his telling, were actually con artists?
If he says he doesn’t regret any of it, he might be lying, which is a problem, but understandable given the stakes.
Or he might be a liar, which is a character flaw, and a tougher puzzle to solve.
Watson claims not to have misgivings about the actions that brought us here. That was his position in March, but a lot has changed since then. It was his position in June, but a lot has changed since then.
But if he really believes nothing he has done is regretful, then he might have an issue most of us aren’t equipped to diagnose. If I made 24 decisions in a two-year span that all ended in me getting sued, I would, at minimum, regret the company I kept.