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The NFL Passes on Taking a Stance on Deshaun Watson

Less than a week before the trade deadline, Roger Goodell said the league would not place Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list until more information was known about the numerous civil lawsuits and criminal complaints against him. It’s a failed opportunity to create separation between Watson’s legal situation and his football situation.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared before reporters in a midtown Manhattan hotel after the league’s fall meetings. He began by answering questions about the Washington Football Team, saying the league would not release any more details from the findings of an investigation into the team concerning workplace misconduct. Eventually, Goodell was asked about Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, the subject of considerable trade speculation, who is currently facing 22 civil lawsuits and at least 10 criminal complaints by women who describe various instances of sexual assault and harassment during massage appointments. Watson has not played for the Texans this season, and when asked about his status with the league, Goodell maintained what has been the league’s position since this summer: The NFL is not ready to place Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list based on the information it currently has.

Instead, Goodell said, the league would exercise patience so as not to interfere with the ongoing civil suits and law enforcement investigations.

“That process is still ongoing and until that process isn’t ongoing and we have enough data and enough information to be able to make a determination of whether he should go on commissioner exempt, we don’t feel that we have the necessary information at this point,” Goodell said.

With the November 2 trade deadline less than a week away, Goodell’s remarks sent a message: Watson is eligible to play for any team, at least for now.

The commissioner’s exempt list is essentially the NFL’s paid leave designation for players who may have committed a felony or what the league terms a “crime of violence.” It allows for a civil or criminal investigation or an NFL inquiry to take place until the league makes a determination on an individual’s punishment. Players on the list can attend team meetings and workouts and receive medical treatment but cannot practice or play in games. They typically stay on the list until a disciplinary decision is reached. Placement on the list says, in effect, that whatever situation is being investigated is more important than football games.

Goodell has sole discretion in determining who qualifies for the exempt list, and he has every right to use it in Watson’s case. There has been some reporting claiming that the league does not see Watson as eligible for the list because he has not been charged with a felony or a violent crime, one circumstance under which the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy states the list may be used. But several other criteria clearly apply.

A Harris County grand jury investigation will eventually decide whether Watson will face felony charges, but Goodell doesn’t have to wait until then to make his own determination. The league’s policy states that Goodell can place someone on the list when an investigation leads him to believe that a player may have violated the policy by committing a felony or violent crime that, under the NFL’s definition, includes “sexual assault by force or against a person who was incapable of giving consent, or … conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety or well-being of another person.” It can also be used “in cases in which a violation relating to a crime of violence is alleged but further investigation is required” in order “to permit the league to conduct a preliminary investigation.”

Goodell has previously used the list when there was public evidence of a violation, even if no criminal charges had been filed. Former Giants kicker Josh Brown was placed on the list in 2016 after police released documents in which he appeared to admit to abusing his wife, as was then-Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt after TMZ released surveillance camera footage of Hunt pushing and kicking a woman during an altercation in 2018. Goodell was also reportedly prepared to place wide receiver Antonio Brown on the list in 2019 after Brown’s former trainer filed a civil suit accusing him of raping her. Brown was cut by the Patriots before the league completed its own investigation. After interviewing the plaintiff as part of its investigation, though, the league could have put Brown on the list if a team had made a move to sign him. (Brown remained unsigned through the 2019 season, but eventually signed with Tampa Bay in 2020; he served an eight-game suspension to start the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The lawsuit was settled out of court.)

Though many of the plaintiffs in Watson’s case originally filed their lawsuits as Jane Doe, they have all since attached their names to the filings, except for one who chose to drop their lawsuit “for now.” More than 11 of the complaints say that Watson exposed himself; at least 12 say he touched the women with his penis, in some cases multiple times. In at least four of the complaints, the women say Watson forced himself on them by kissing them or engaging in oral sex. In one filing, the plaintiff says that Watson told her he makes “a lot of massage therapists uncomfortable.” In another, a woman says he told her, “I know you have a career and a reputation, and I know you would hate for someone to mess with yours, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine,” which she took as a threat. Much of the correspondence between Watson and the plaintiffs took place via text message or Instagram direct message. Media organizations including Sports Illustrated have been able to review many of these messages, as well as messages between massage therapists discussing Watson. The NFL and other investigating entities would likely be able to collect similar evidence.

And while Goodell said Tuesday that he and his colleagues lack sufficient information to make a decision about Watson and “pride ourselves on not interfering” while law enforcement is still investigating, the NFL has gotten involved in his case. As of August, at least 10 of the plaintiffs suing Watson had already met with the NFL, according to Sports Illustrated.

Goodell is choosing not to place Watson on the exempt list. That is his right—nowhere in the conduct policy does it say that the list must be used when certain thresholds are met. One consequence of that choice, though, is that it places teams with any potential interest in acquiring Watson into an ugly risk-reward calculus that conflates his legal situation with his football talent in a way that risks diminishing the real harm alleged in the lawsuits and criminal complaints against him.

That calculus is clearly underway as the trade deadline approaches. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that his expectation is that “something will happen involving a trade and Deshaun Watson” and that multiple teams are interested in him. The Dolphins have reportedly been a front-runner for Watson since the offseason; Carolina and Philadelphia have also been reported as potential destinations. ESPN reported Monday that Watson, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, is open to trade destinations beyond Miami, though he also reportedly rejected the Eagles as a landing spot.

Whether or not anything happens remains to be seen. CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson reported Tuesday that there are more teams interested in Watson than just the Dolphins but did not name those teams. Some of the top contenders, though, have seemingly removed themselves from the running. According to multiple reports Wednesday, the Panthers are no longer actively pursuing a trade for Watson. On Monday, Peter King reported that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was “not pushing his football people to deal for Watson right now.” According to Fox’s Jay Glazer, the Texans are looking for at least three first-round draft picks as compensation for Watson, a steep price even before factoring in the massive risk of taking on a player with his legal exposure. Watson is also set to earn a fully guaranteed $35 million salary in 2022.

Watson is alleged to have committed serious crimes, and those allegations will not have been investigated and resolved by Tuesday’s deadline at 4 p.m. ET. But while his civil and criminal liability won’t be sorted until the legal process plays out, any team that trades for Watson or even considers it has to make a determination about his worth absent that information. That value judgment will inevitably factor in football needs: Would he come at a discount? Would he fit the scheme? If the answers are yes to both questions, acquiring him would seem like a good opportunity. And just like that, the perverse incentive structures of winning football games worm their way into a story with real consequences and in which real harm has been alleged. It becomes a story about a very good football player who might not be available long term, and under what circumstances a team should assume the risk of trading for him. In the worst possible version of this narrative cycle, the murky legal situation gets funneled into the catch-all bucket of “off-field issues,” and the women involved in the lawsuits and criminal complaints against Watson become nameless and faceless. The situation is eventually laundered into “adversity” that needed to be faced by both player and team and overcome by performing well on the field.

If the league were to put Watson on the exempt list, it could avoid watching these calculations play out in real time—at least for the immediate future. Take the Panthers, for instance. Carolina reportedly cooled its interest in Watson but, according to The Athletic’s Panthers reporter Joe Person, briefly reignited it after a bad loss to the Giants last Sunday in which the team benched quarterback Sam Darnold in the fourth quarter. The week before, Panthers coach Matt Rhule told reporters he was committed to Darnold and that the team was “not looking anywhere else,” including to Watson. But after another loss in which Darnold struggled, it seems the team at least briefly reconsidered that stance.

The problem with that sequence is it seems like the only thing that changed is the direness of Carolina’s quarterback situation. How many more losses would it take to change the calculation of what Watson might be worth to them? It’s likely that teams will try to identify the scenarios under which they’d be able to tolerate adding Watson to their roster given his circumstances. In the reality of the NFL, though, tolerance of risk or of bad off-field behavior exists on a sliding scale based on ability to help the team win.

Teams and the league can promise cooperation with law enforcement and to let the legal process play out. Fans and media can attempt to have more nuanced, thoughtful discussions of any trade or lack thereof. These are worthy aims, but they are half-measures at best. There is no way to balance Watson the accused and Watson the football player without calibrating the possibility of serious criminal behavior against the possibility of winning games.

Which is why it’s worth dividing Watson’s legal situation from his football situation—and that’s what the commissioner’s exempt list is designed to do. Watson is accused of serious crimes by several women, and the best way to show an understanding of the severity of those accusations is to say that they should be investigated fully. Football can wait.