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Deshaun Watson’s Return Is Not an Excuse to Forget

The end of the quarterback’s suspension is not a fresh start. It’s a reminder of his history of what a former judge called his “predatory” behavior—and the Browns’ decision to go all in on him anyway.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Deshaun Watson makes his return to an NFL field on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns must hope that it will start the transition from people talking about “Deshaun Watson, the man named in more than two dozen accounts of sexual misconduct” to “Deshaun Watson, the quarterback.” They hope that it will shift the focus away from the franchise’s decision to go all in on somebody who a disciplinary officer found caused “genuine danger to the safety and well-being” of multiple women and to the team’s late-season playoff push. The Browns hope that when Watson puts on his pads and cleats, the talk about the ugliness of his actions will suddenly disappear.

If anything, it will grow louder than ever. Watson has remained mainly hidden for the last two years. But when he played in his only preseason game for the Browns in August, fans in Jacksonville heckled him, chanting, “You sick fuck!” and, “No means no!” That was a few hundred people in a mostly empty stadium for an exhibition game. There could be 70,000 fans in attendance on Sunday, when Watson plays against the Texans, his former team, in Houston—the city where many of the women who sued him for sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault live. Some of them will be at the game: Lawyer Tony Buzbee, who has represented most of the women who filed cases against Watson, has rented a suite at NRG Stadium and told The Athletic he expects about 10 of the women will go to the game. “You think you put us behind you,” Buzbee said, “but we are still here.”

Since March 2021, 26 women have said roughly the same thing about Watson through a series of civil lawsuits. They said that he turned massage appointments into unwanted sexual encounters. Some of the women said that Watson pressured them to commit sex acts; others said Watson touched them with his penis and ejaculated on them. Two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, which means they felt there wasn’t enough evidence to go to trial. Watson has settled 23 of the 26 civil suits (one case was dropped), although this proves neither guilt nor innocence.

The Browns have insisted that Watson is “remorseful,” but the quarterback has maintained he’s done nothing wrong in each of his limited media appearances since joining the team. On August 12, before his preseason debut, he issued a brief apology “to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation.” Six days later, he told reporters that “I’ve always stood on my innocence and never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone.” On Thursday, Watson spoke to the press again, but only agreed to answer football questions—when asked “what he learned about himself” during his time away from the game and through league-mandated counseling, he said “that’s more in that phase of clinical and legal stuff” and refused to elaborate.

But the NFL believes that Watson committed sexual assault, and a former judge agreed. Watson did not serve an 11-game suspension just because the league felt like suspending him: The NFL had to present its case to retired judge Sue L. Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the league and the NFLPA to serve as the arbiter in Watson’s case. In her ruling issued on August 1, Robinson found that it was more likely than not that Watson had engaged in sexual assault, and that he “acted with a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions.” (The league chose to present to Robinson just four cases, but she found Watson had likely committed sexual assault in all four.) She called Watson’s behavior “predatory” and “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”

If the Browns don’t believe that Watson committed sexual assault, they haven’t been bold enough to say it. Nobody in the organization has come out to say they believe Watson is innocent; nobody has disagreed with Robinson’s findings; nobody has called the women who sued Watson liars. And if the people running the Browns do believe that Watson committed sexual assault, then they are arguing that the appropriate punishment for multiple acts of sexual assault is to be benched for slightly less than two-thirds of one NFL season, with relatively little financial punishment or public acknowledgment of wrongdoing. This seems like an absurd stance that nobody could possibly believe, except it seems to be the official stance of the Cleveland Browns.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what any of them believe, because their actions, from March until today, tell us they don’t care one way or another.

General manager Andrew Berry has been vague. In August, he told the media that “our view with Deshaun is we see someone who has been committed and will continue to be committed to a very long process of personal growth. That is something we believe that we can support him in.” In early November, Berry was non-specific in his comments, saying about Watson: “He has been focused on working on himself.”

Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have given even more strange comments, often hinting that Watson has done something wrong that he feels bad about and should be forgiven for. After Robinson’s decision, the Haslams released a statement noting that Watson was “remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many.” They didn’t say what situation or who had caused it, nor did they specify who had been hurt. (In a surprise twist, the 2023 Browns’ MVP is … the passive voice!) More than two weeks later, on August 18, after the NFL and NFLPA settled on the 11-game suspension, the Haslams spoke to the press—and for the first time acknowledged that Watson did some things wrong, but mainly focused on the prospect of forgiving people who have done wrong in general. “I think in this country, and hopefully in the world, people deserve second chances,” Jimmy Haslam said. “Is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be a part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? That’s what we’re going to do.”

In a shocking case of saying the quiet part out loud, Haslam openly said that Watson’s status as a star quarterback gave him preferential treatment: “Of course! But if he was Joe Smith he wouldn’t be on the headlines every day.”

In one sense, Haslam is right. People should have second chances—if they earn them. When someone does something awful, they should be able to show that they know that what they did was wrong. They should be able to show that they’ve tried to be a better person. They should be able to reckon with the people they’ve harmed. Watson hasn’t done any of that. He can’t even bring himself to answer the easiest softball questions. He can’t even admit that he “disrespected” women.

And of course, this isn’t really a second chance. Watson had about two dozen chances to change his ways independently. Each of the cases tells the story of Watson moving on to a new woman and causing them harm. You’ve got to work to earn a second chance, and you’ve got to work even harder to earn a 27th chance. Watson hasn’t done that. Listening to him talk, he doesn’t seem to think he did anything wrong at all.

And on top of giving Watson this chance, the Browns have gone out of their way to both lessen his punishment and actively reward him. Several teams were in the trade market for Watson this offseason, but only the Browns were willing to give him a fully guaranteed salary. They then negotiated that salary so that any suspension he would serve in 2022 would barely touch his pockets: While Watson will be paid a base salary of $46 million a year from 2023 to 2026, his salary in 2022 is only $1.035 million, so the 11-game suspension costs him $690,000 out of a contract that pays him $230 million. (The only football-related financial penalty came in the form of a $5 million fine that was part of the NFL-NFLPA settlement; Watson presumably also paid money to settle most of the civil suits, although those details are unknown.)

The Browns didn’t have to do any of this. But Watson had leverage, and the no-trade clause in his contract with the Texans gave him the power to dictate his terms of his departure from Houston. He didn’t play a snap in 2021 for the Texans, in part because of the ongoing legal issues, but in part because he had previously demanded a trade because of his frustrations with the team’s front office. When Watson showed up to training camp that year in 2021 out of contractual obligations, the Texans made him play safety on the scout team defense. Houston had to keep paying him, but didn’t balk at spending $10.5 million for him to be inactive every week last season, even though the team badly could’ve used a good quarterback. (It’s worth noting that the Texans reached financial settlements with 30 women after The New York Times reported the team had provided Watson with a venue to receive massages, and the team’s director of security provided Watson with nondisclosure agreements to distribute.)

And the NFL, for its part, tried to get Watson suspended for a minimum of a year. The actual path taken to the 11-game suspension was strange: Even though Robinson found that Watson likely committed sexual assault, she is an expert in business law rather than sexual violence cases. And even though she noted that Watson’s behavior was “unprecedented” and “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” she said that Watson’s punishment needed to be in line with the league’s precedents for off-field punishment and the verbiage in the league’s personal conduct policy. (She also found that Watson’s behavior was “non-violent,” which is a strange thing to say about sexual assault.) She issued a six-game suspension; the league appealed and reportedly sought a suspension of at least a full season. Eventually, the NFL and NFLPA settled on 11 games, roughly halfway between six games and an entire season. While the NFL has been weak on domestic and sexual violence cases in the past—a history that, in part, informed Robinson’s justification for such a short suspension—it really did push to get legitimate punishment for one of its most prominent players this time.

It’s just the Browns standing up for Watson. And from here on out, everything falls on them. That includes the wins, but the Haslams, Berry, and head coach Kevin Stefanski are also responsible for the gross actions such as their fans joking about how happy endings are not illegal. (Not the point, but they are.) They’re responsible for the fans they’ve lost and will continue to lose because they clearly don’t prioritize the safety of women. They’re responsible for any further harm Watson might cause after he’s gotten the message that he’s too valuable to receive serious punishment. And they’re responsible for the harm they’re causing by sending the message that sexual assault—even serial, repeated sexual assault—is not worthy of a serious punishment or reflection.

When Deshaun Watson makes his return to an NFL field on Sunday, the Browns hope it will be the start of a new chapter—for Watson and the franchise. But what they might find instead is that it doesn’t mark the end of the outrage against Watson; it will be the boiling point, when people are louder and angrier than ever.