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Deshaun Watson’s Return Often Felt Like Any Other Game. That’s the Problem.

The Browns quarterback made his first on-field appearance in 700 days on Sunday. But rather than address the real, important reasons for his absence, most people in the NFL machine seemed content to leave them in the past.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL made it easy for football fans to avoid Deshaun Watson’s return on Sunday. The Cleveland Browns–Houston Texans game was played in the early window, with seven other contests going on simultaneously. According to ESPN, it was broadcast to only 7 percent of homes in the country. And the football was sloppy, so Red Zone didn’t cut to the broadcast very often, outside of a few defensive and special teams scores. For how much attention this story, and this particular game, has garnered over the past eight months, it was played in relative anonymity. This was both predictable and a problem. The NFL machine largely treated this game how it’s treated past situations in which a player or the league has caused harm with lasting and tragic human consequences: by pretending that context didn’t exist.

It was Watson’s first game in 700 days, a fact the CBS broadcast team, led by announcers Spero Dedes and Jay Feely, repeated about a dozen times in the three-hour telecast. What they didn’t really delve into, though, outside of a brief pregame timeline of events, was the reason for Watson’s absence from the field: Between March 2021 and October of this year, 26 women filed civil lawsuits saying that Watson turned professional massages into coercive, unwanted sexual encounters. The initial wave of filings prompted an NFL investigation into Watson’s conduct, and the QB sat out the 2021 season while he and the Texans waited to see how various legal proceedings would play out. Early this year, two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, the first of which cleared the way for him to be traded in March. The Browns sent three first-round picks to Houston in the deal, and then immediately handed Watson a fully guaranteed contract worth $230 million—comfortably the largest guarantee in NFL history.

The NFL’s investigation into Watson concluded in August. Former judge Sue L. Robinson, working as an independent arbiter jointly appointed by the NFL and its players association, found that it was more likely than not that Watson had committed sexual assault in each of the four cases the league had asked her to review. And after Robinson’s recommendation and a subsequent league appeal, Watson was suspended 11 games, fined $5 million, and put into a treatment program whose details are unknown.

With Watson returning to the field on Sunday, and 24 of the 26 lawsuits resolved—23 were settled while another was dropped—it now seems like that will be the extent of the consequences he’ll face for what Robinson called a pattern of “predatory” behavior “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.” If that wasn’t clear before Sunday’s game, it is now. Outside of vague allusions to Watson’s suspension by the announcers, it largely felt like any other NFL broadcast. There were a smattering of boos at NRG Stadium when the Browns offense first took the field, but this was hardly a hostile environment. Watson said after the game that he was able to ignore the jeers and compared the crowd to ones he’s faced in rivalry games. CBS’s Aditi Kinkwhibala reported there were no protests outside of the stadium and no inflammatory banners or signs inside of it. Watson shared a cordial pregame hug with Texans owner Cal McNair. And the broadcast showed numerous Houston fans wearing their old no. 4 jerseys in the stands. Watson even signed some of them before the game.

While it was never acknowledged during the telecast, about 10 of the women who sued Watson for sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault were in attendance on Sunday. Tony Buzbee, the Houston-based lawyer who represented them, rented out a stadium suite to send a message to Watson that “we are still here.” We know this only because The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler reported it days earlier. Otherwise, it would have been easy to miss on Sunday.

Most of the discussion throughout the game was focused on Watson’s journey back to the field—as if he had overcome some obstacle to make it there. Dedes and Feely talked about the lengths Browns coach Kevin Stefanski had gone to in order to normalize the team’s preparation for the game. They explained how Watson’s personal QB coach, Quincy Avery, had him practicing play designs from Cleveland’s playbook throughout the suspension. At one point, the broadcast even cut to a shot of Watson’s own suite at the stadium filled with people there to support him.

That shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the coverage we saw from some of the league’s other television partners in the lead-up to kickoff. The Fox pregame show did state what Watson had been suspended for, yet Jay Glazer commended Stefanski for making it all about football for his quarterback this week. ESPN’s Adam Schefter posted an absurdly vague report at 4 a.m. Sunday morning citing sources that said Watson has shown “signs of progress” in his league-mandated treatment program. The story offered no details on what that program entails, or what anonymous NFL and NFLPA sources consider “progress.”

Watson himself has avoided questions about the program while continuing to insist that he hasn’t actually done anything wrong in the first place, contradicting Browns ownership’s laughable claim that he has shown remorse throughout the process. In August, Watson released a written statement apologizing for “any pain this situation may have caused” and claimed to “take accountability for the decisions I made.” Then later that same day, when meeting with reporters, Watson walked the written apology back. “I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone,” he said. “I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence.” Similarly, in his first media availability back from suspension, the 27-year-old refused to answer non-football questions, citing concerns from his “legal and clinical team.”

“I was just excited to be back on the field today,” Watson told reporters after the game. “I did everything that I was asked and was required to do. I did all that, and I was able to play and be on the field today.”

The source quoted in Schefter’s report says Watson’s treatment is “ongoing” and “could take a while,” but the quarterback is already talking about it in the past tense, as if that chapter of his life has been closed. And it’s understandable why he would feel able to do that. The Browns have gone out of their way to shield him, both off the field and on it. They wasted no time benching Jacoby Brissett, who had been playing well, when Watson’s suspension was up. Their social media team spent the week hyping Watson up and even posted a selfie-shot video of Watson recapping Sunday’s win over the Texans.

Not that it matters, but Watson did not play well on Sunday. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards and an interception, good for a QBR of 28.6. The offense did not score a single touchdown, but the Browns still managed to win the game 27-14 thanks to two defensive scores and a punt-return touchdown. In his first competitive game in nearly two years, Watson was inaccurate, indecisive, and decidedly rusty.

In a way, his individual issues on Sunday serve as a disheartening reminder that there is very little chance this will end with a resolution most people would consider satisfactory. If he never throws another touchdown pass in his career, Watson will still make every cent remaining on his contract. And even the small measure of satisfaction his mediocre play this weekend may have provided to those who have been following this story closely was fleeting, as he was still able to celebrate a win in the end and happily hand out jerseys to former teammates.

After Watson took a knee to run out the final seconds, Dedes concluded that even if it was an ugly performance, “all that mattered was that Cleveland won.” It was a questionable choice of words, for sure, but there is an uncomfortable truth to that statement. Sunday proved that the NFL machine will make it as easy as possible for Watson to play his way back into the good graces of football fans. Lauren Baxley, one of just two women whose lawsuit against Watson remains open, told The New York Times’s Jenny Vrentas that she turned down Buzbee’s invitation to attend Sunday’s game partially for that reason.

“It is difficult to balance my efforts to heal, while being acutely aware that most in the media and sports world will continue to praise his athleticism and ignore his range of assaults against dozens of women,” Baxley said. “Whatever nanoscopic punishment he may have fulfilled to the satisfaction of the NFL brings neither healing nor justice to us, nor protection for future women in his presence.”

We would like to believe there’s a chance for all of that to change; that Watson’s presence in the league will never be normalized, and that these women will eventually find peace and justice. But if Sunday was the NFL world’s first crack at proving any cynicism to be misplaced, the results were not promising.