It’s hard to imagine that anybody thinks a six-game suspension is the appropriate punishment for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Those in Watson’s camp have long held that he should not be disciplined by the NFL after more than two dozen women came forward with accounts of his lewd behavior and sexual misconduct, which Watson has denied. Virtually everybody else feels that six games is egregiously low. Somehow, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson concluded that Watson engaged in a pattern of unwanted sexual conduct, and yet still issued a 16-page ruling arguing for a six-game suspension.
It’s tough to properly assess a fair punishment for Watson given the staggering number of people who were affected by his actions. Watson was named in lawsuits by 24 women he once hired as masseuses. Some of the women say that he ejaculated on them without their consent. Some of the women say that he touched them with his penis against their will. Two of the women detail accounts of sexual assault, including forced oral penetration. Two additional women filed criminal complaints, and a 27th woman sued him but withdrew her lawsuit over privacy concerns. (All but one of the civil cases have been settled out of court.)
One account of sexual misconduct involving a player would warrant punishment by the NFL on its own. With Watson, there are more than two dozen. How do we comprehend the sheer horror of that number? If there were 15 complaints instead of 27, would we be less horrified or furious? How do we make sense of 27 accounts when every single one is worthy of outrage? Would any league punishment have felt satisfying?
The U.S. criminal justice system struggles to hand out appropriate punishments—and assigning appropriate punishments is what the criminal justice system is designed to do. The NFL is a sports league, more equipped to adjudicate football misdeeds than actual ones. And it’s not particularly good at that either. Many fans spend Sundays mad at the refs.
For years, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell deferred to law enforcement to inform decision-making about player punishment. That system failed in 2014, when Goodell suspended then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a mere two games for punching his then-fiancée and knocking her unconscious. Goodell later said he “didn’t get [the Rice decision] right,” and the NFL overhauled its personal conduct policy and disciplinary process as a result, with the league gaining even more power to investigate and punish players independent of what happened in court. In the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to appoint a third-party adjudicator—in Watson’s case, Robinson—who would hold hearings, review evidence, and issue a ruling. This system, in theory, would add an air of impartiality and legitimacy to the proceedings. (The CBA gives Goodell the authority to hear and rule on appeals. The NFL has until Thursday to file an appeal.)
In practice, however, this system failed its first test. The NFL interviewed a dozen of the women who brought lawsuits against Watson, and presented evidence from four of them to Robinson, which limited the overall scope of what Robinson was able to consider. Still, she found that Watson had “engaged in sexual assault” (which the NFL defined as “touching [his] penis to the women without their consent”) and caused “genuine danger to the safety and well-being” of multiple women. Robinson wrote that Watson “acted with a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions.” Nonetheless, she concluded that Watson should be suspended for only six games.
Robinson based her decision primarily on league precedent. Her report notes that the league’s most common punishment for “gendered violence and sexual acts” is six games, and that she is “bound ‘by standards of fairness and consistency’” and must give a punishment in line with past punishments. Perhaps the most telling passage is below:
The NFL may be a “forward-facing” organization, but it is not necessarily a forward- looking one. Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct. At least in the former situation, the Policy was changed and applied proactively. Here, the NFL is attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to - and consistency of consequence for - those in the NFL subject to the Policy.
It’s a stunning document. Robinson plainly acknowledges that Watson likely committed sexual harassment and assault, forever altering the lives of dozens of women. In the very paragraph in which she reveals the six-game punishment, Robinson writes, “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” and then settles on a suspension of roughly one-third of one season. She also describes Watson’s actions as “egregious” but “non-violent.” I’d love to hear an explanation for how ejaculating onto a woman who does not want to be ejaculated on is, in fact, not violence.
The ruling fails to grapple with the serial nature of Watson’s actions, which is essential to the nature of what he did. Some of the women who said Watson harassed or abused them refused to work with him again. Some considered changing careers entirely. And after each woman made clear that Watson’s advances were unwanted and wrong, Watson sought out more women.
Twenty-seven women, six games. Robinson was looking at only four of the cases—was each of those four women worth 1.5 games? If Robinson had ruled on all 27 women who came forward with their accounts of Watson’s misconduct, would he be suspended for 40.5 games? Or perhaps it’s an unsolvable equation, because the NFL’s personal conduct policy left no room for the gray areas of sexual violence or the possibility of multiple accusers.
Robinson’s ruling is based on two guiding principles, both of which are immensely flawed. On the one hand, the ruling emphasizes that the six-game suspension is a matter of precedent based on the league’s previous penalties related to sexual misconduct. This is a mistake. No previous player has been named in so many accounts by so many women. I don’t know the correct punishment for 27 cases, or whether it’s different from the amount that would be correct for 10 or 50 or 75. But how can anybody appeal to precedent when the misconduct itself is so clearly unprecedented? There’s no number that would have felt right, but it’s certainly wrong for the number to be determined by a technicality that doesn’t have anything to do with Watson’s case or the women affected.
On the other hand, the ruling ignores precedent as it pertains to punishments for nonsexual acts. In May, the NFL suspended Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins six games for violating its performance-enhancing drug policy, implying that PED usage is exactly as bad as 27 accounts of sexual misconduct. In March, the NFL suspended Calvin Ridley, an Atlanta Falcons wide receiver who bet on his team to win some games while he was on the non-football injury list, for at least an entire season. So gambling, at least by NFL suspension calculus, is 183.3 percent worse than 27 cases of sexual misconduct.
Surely, the NFL did not intentionally create a system in which trying to make a little extra cash is considered three times worse than serial sexual misconduct. After all, the league speaks out against sexism as often as it can, and is actively courting gambling partners. But that’s the disciplinary system the NFL has apparently constructed.
In the end, there’s one easy way to tell that this punishment was too light: by looking at Watson, who spent decision day practicing with the Browns and signing autographs for a mob of fans at training camp. Watson has avoided criminal charges and settled 23 of the 24 lawsuits against him. He has not even remotely expressed public contrition for his actions. At this point, it would be possible for him to say some form of “I’m sorry,” or to speak out against sexual violence without admitting personal guilt. He has chosen not to, and he probably never will. (Robinson specifically mentioned Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” as a factor in her decision, though clearly it didn’t weigh that heavily.)
Watson was able to choose his new team, and signed what at the time was the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history. He will receive almost all of that money, in spite of the suspension. The Browns anticipated punishment and did Watson a favor by classifying the vast majority of his $46 million annual payment as a “signing bonus,” meaning the suspension will cause him to lose 6/17ths of his $1 million “salary” while receiving $45 million from the Browns. Essentially, Watson will get to show up in October fresher than his opponents and ready to help his team make the playoffs.
Some of the women Watson hurt may have switched careers after he abused their trust. Meanwhile, Watson himself will get to play for the team he wants with a record contract. The system is broken. Everybody has lost here, except for Deshaun Watson.