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The NFL Could Have Made a Statement With the Deshaun Watson Punishment; Instead, It Cut a Deal

After a settlement between the league and union, the Cleveland Browns quarterback will serve an 11-game suspension this season. But given Watson’s continued defiance and the Browns’ lack of accountability, it’s still inadequate.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the words of the NFL’s own investigators, Deshaun Watson committed sexual assault multiple times, making “unwanted sexual contact with another person” on multiple occasions by “touching [his] penis to the women without their consent.” He did it, the NFL said, knowing this type of sexual contact was unwanted and, in doing so, posed “genuine danger to the safety and well-being” of the women involved. Further, the NFL said in presenting the findings of its investigation earlier this summer, that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.”

The NFL found all of this to be true, and even after having had those findings backed by an independent arbitrator, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell still cut Watson a deal.

On Thursday, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to a settlement on the discipline to be imposed on Watson: an 11-game suspension, a $5 million fine, and mandated counseling. This is an increase from the six-game suspension handed down earlier this month by Sue L. Robinson, the jointly appointed arbitrator who initially heard the case, but substantially less than the minimum year-long suspension the NFL originally claimed to be pushing for. The settlement comes after the league appealed Robinson’s initial decision, which it has authority to do under the collective bargaining agreement. Goodell, who could have heard the appeal and rendered a decision himself, instead appointed former New Jersey attorney general and frequent league collaborator Peter Harvey to do so—but the settlement headed off a final decision from Harvey.

Try not to get bogged down in the mechanics of it all, though. The NFL had the power to hear the appeal and make the decision, whatever decision it wanted. And while the league originally said (to Robinson, and in leaks to reporters) it wanted a year-long suspension, in the end it was fine with 11 games.

It is hard, therefore, to believe that the NFL or Goodell ever really cared about reaching that year-long mark. If they cared about it, they would have done it. Nothing was stopping them. It is true that the NFLPA could have taken the league to court over a non-negotiated decision, but if that is what stopped the NFL from going further, it picked a funny day to wake up and suddenly care about billable hours or another legal battle with the union it routinely relishes defeating. (Goodell’s CBA-granted disciplinary authority was most notably reinforced by a federal appeals court in the Deflategate case.) Even to say that the league settled its dispute with the union over Watson’s punishment feels disingenuous, as it’s hard to have a dispute when one side has all the power.

Because this is a concession made to a person who Goodell believes behaved in a predatory manner, when that person had no legitimate leverage with which to extract it, the settled-upon punishment is inadequate. That said, it is hard to do the math of what would be appropriate—how many women and how much unwanted sexual contact equals how many football games? There is no answer that wouldn’t have some arbitrary quality to it.

But there would have been something meaningful about it had the NFL actually imposed the one-year minimum suspension it originally claimed to want. The league operates in seasons, the units that teams construct rosters around and that fans tie their hopes to. The ability of Watson to return in December (in a game against the Houston Texans, no less) dulls the impact of his punishment. Now that he will be a part of the 2022 Browns, his discipline gets mixed up with the perverse incentive structures of a team pursuing a championship. It’s hard to say what, exactly, is the right punishment for so many misdeeds, but a year-long suspension would have been tangible in a way that 11 games is not—both for Watson and for the Browns, who cravenly tried to build a championship-caliber roster around him and then spent all summer trying to shield him and themselves from consequences, hard questions, or anything resembling accountability.

The NFL had an opportunity to show some conviction in pushing for the suspension it originally said it wanted. Instead, offered as a mitigating factor in the statement announcing the settlement, Goodell said, “Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL.” Watson will have to undergo some form of treatment from a “third-party behavioral expert” to finalize his reinstatement, which perhaps is the commitment Goodell is referring to.

But if that statement is supposed to indicate that real remorse and self-reflection from Watson contributed to the league’s willingness to settle the case, it’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone reading it.

Minutes after the NFL released that statement—and after the team released a statement from Watson in which he said he would be accepting “accountability for the decisions I made”—Watson, in his first press conference in months, said he continues to “stand on my innocence” and that he “never assaulted or disrespected anyone.” Watson had made a sort-of apology in an interview with a sideline reporter last week—notable timing, since his lack of remorse had been an aggravating factor in Robinson’s decision and was considered a factor in the league’s decision to appeal—in which he apologized “to all the women that I have impacted in this situation.” (He was not asked specifically to address Robinson’s findings that he had committed sexual assault as defined by the NFL and presented by the league’s investigators.) Watson clarified Thursday that he made that apology “to all women,” but not specifically to the women who said he assaulted them. It strains credulity to think anyone could watch him speak and believe they were watching a person who’d taken a shred of genuine responsibility.

Watson’s lack of accountability has been enabled by the Browns from the moment they traded for him, and team owners have been defiant in the face of criticism. In his own news conference Thursday, following the news of the settlement, team owner Jimmy Haslam said that he “absolutely” would do it all over again. Even if he knew an 11-game suspension was coming, and that a neutral arbiter would agree with the findings of the NFL’s investigators, Haslam would still push his team to trade for and then sign Watson to unprecedented $230 million, fully guaranteed contract. Haslam indicated that he had no concerns about the character of the player he paid so much to acquire.

The arrogance of that statement should be striking, and perhaps it is better explained by something Dee Haslam, Jimmy’s wife, said not long after, when she veered toward victim blaming by clumsily (and incorrectly) equating massage therapy with sex work.

“There’s just a huge opportunity to talk about the major issues in our country in this area, such as sex trafficking, massage parlor use,” Dee Haslam said.

There’s less of an opportunity, though, to talk about Watson’s own behavior, which the Haslams said they would not discuss, even though Jimmy Haslam said at one point that Watson had an opportunity to “rehabilitate” himself.

So, in what the NFL and Watson’s NFLPA representatives believe is a resolution to this situation, they offer a mess of contradictions and shirk responsibility. Watson will “do the hard work,” as Goodell said, even though there is no work to do; he apologized to everyone, but for nothing. He’ll see a counselor about his behavior, behavior that he says is completely fine. Lest we forget any entries into the long list of people who embarrassed themselves in front of microphones in Cleveland on Thursday, Browns general manager Andrew Berry said that the process the team went through to acquire Watson, which did not include interviewing any of the women who said he assaulted them before giving him the most guaranteed money in league history, was “thorough.” Head coach Kevin Stefanski tried as hard as humanly possible to speak only about football.

Ultimately, no one at the NFL, at the NFLPA, or in Cleveland was going to be able to offer a good explanation for the settlement, because there isn’t one. It doesn’t make sense because it can’t make sense, and every fraudulent justification offered is another insult to the women Watson hurt. The Browns are used to being a laughingstock. But never to an extent like this.