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The NFL Had No Choice But to Appeal the Deshaun Watson Suspension

On Wednesday, the NFL appealed the six-game suspension that Judge Sue L. Robinson gave the Browns QB. But while the league will likely get the longer punishment it wants, nobody will win in this case.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL had to appeal the Deshaun Watson suspension. Every argument to keep Judge Sue L. Robinson’s six-game penalty intact—arguments about respecting the new collectively bargained disciplinary process, keeping labor peace, the idea that the NFL could outsource a complicated situation onto a neutral party and wash its hands of the decision—was outweighed by the obvious fact that Watson should not be playing football in October.

Watson, the 26-year-old Cleveland Browns quarterback, came under NFL investigation after being named in three sexual misconduct lawsuits (that number would eventually balloon to 24) by women who he hired as masseuses. Some of these lawsuits say Watson ejaculated on women without their consent; some say he touched women with his penis without consent; two say Watson orally penetrated women without their consent. All but one of these cases have been settled out of court.

Robinson heard the experiences of only four women in the hearing, which started in June, but she concluded that Watson had an “egregious” pattern of behavior. And after announcing her decision Monday, the NFL had three days to appeal. It did so on Wednesday and, per a source, is seeking an indefinite suspension of at least a year. There will be no further formal debate—the league’s management council has filed the appeal, and commissioner Roger Goodell or a designee will make the decision. It’s tempting to imagine Goodell in a sort of one-man Off Broadway show, presenting the case to himself then putting on an old-timey judge wig to make the decision. This is not that far off, although Goodell would probably be wise to appoint someone else in the league office to make the final determination.

The NFL is now in a messy situation. But really, it already was. This case has featured what might be a league-record amount of people and franchises embarrassing themselves in the wake of scandal: the Browns, the Texans, the double-digit teams who desperately wanted to be in the Browns’ shoes even knowing the possible consequences. It became a story about power, about what teams will do to sell out for a franchise quarterback, and the optics of a league that’s obsessed with them. And for the NFL, there was only one way out. The league knew there was going to be backlash against something, and it decided Wednesday it’d rather have people angry at the process than angry at a lax punishment.

If the indefinite suspension is pushed through, there’s only one way this will end: The NFL Players Association will sue, and this will end up in federal court. The NFL will eventually get its way, however long that takes. The New York Times’ Jenny Vrentas pointed out Wednesday that the CBA says the NFL’s ruling is “full, final and complete.” She quoted a labor law expert who said, because of that clause, whatever the NFL brings back will be airtight against judicial overturn. The NFLPA can buy time or goodwill from its members by drawing this out, but the new CBA, signed in 2020, is just like the old ones: The NFL has ironclad language in its corner that will give it the “win,” as it did in Deflategate and other cases that have gone to court. A handful of Browns fans and generally anti-NFL analysts have floated ideas of far-reaching lawsuits that would turn the league on its head and embarrass owners. That’s not how any of this works. There is, in the end, one outcome.

The idea that the NFL wouldn’t use its full might in such an extreme case was always misguided. Goodell took on his role as “The Enforcer”—dubbed as such by a 2012 Time magazine cover—to have broad say in player discipline. This level of power came after a series of off-field scandals early in his tenure and changes in the personal conduct policy that allowed Goodell to hand down heavy punishments. In subsequent CBA negotiations, the union tried to negotiate less power for Goodell. “That was aggressively resisted,” union outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler told me a few years ago. “It was, frankly, nothing that they wanted to consider.” That dynamic changed slightly after the 2020 CBA—a former judge like Robinson will hear cases now. But the end result did not: The NFL can still get the result it wants, when it really wants it.

I believe that the 2014 Ray Rice saga informed nearly everything about modern star punishments in the NFL. That July, Goodell suspended Rice two games for hitting his then-fiancée, Janay, in an Atlantic City elevator. Goodell said at the time, “We have a very firm policy that domestic violence is not acceptable in the NFL, and there are consequences for that.” But when video emerged that September, the public blowback was so severe that the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely. He was eventually cut by the Ravens and never played in the league again. I covered that story closely, attending multiple Goodell press gatherings that month. It was the only time, I think, that the national media ever debated whether Goodell would keep his job.

What made the Rice case different from other domestic violence cases the league has handled was not just the video of Rice, but the pressure from media outlets that rarely cover the NFL. Not just the biggest newspapers in the United States, but the network morning shows, the national nightly news. It is the NFL’s job to stay off those shows for negative reasons, and Goodell and his disciplinary screwup led the A-block.

The danger of a short suspension for Watson, then, is twofold: First, the media scrutiny if he were to return in mid-October would be intense. The NFL could weather that. But the second and biggest problem with a short suspension is that the Watson saga is still ongoing. It hasn’t even been two months since Vrentas’s most recent bombshell report: that Watson met with at least 66 women for massages within a 17-month period, and that the Houston Texans helped facilitate appointments and even provided Watson with nondisclosure agreements. One lawsuit is still active. Optically—and a lot of this is optics—it’s bad for the league to have Watson play in October. But even worse, the depth and scope of the story means that there may be more reporting to come, more shoes to drop. The outside investigations are not going away. The women involved in these cases are not going away simply because Watson might return to the field.

The NFL had to appeal for any number of reasons: First, Robinson’s report savages Watson’s behavior but makes clear that the six-game suspension was based on her belief that the NFL can’t make wholesale changes to its suspension lengths without prior notice to the players. The ruling came from an extremely narrow interpretation of the CBA, while the NFL, on the other hand, has a long history of changing rules quickly and without much notice. Also, there’s the matter of Watson not showing any remorse for his actions or admitting any wrongdoing—both factors that were cited to his detriment in Robinson’s report. In fact, reporters on Wednesday said that Watson’s camp still believed six games was too much.

If Watson’s suspension had stayed at six games, it would have kept a broken system broken. Not just because it would mean that virtually no personal conduct policy violation could extend beyond six games, but because it would reward a franchise that went all in on one of the most reckless moves in modern NFL history. It’s important to note here that a handful of teams would have loved to have Watson on their team, which is why the cost to trade for him this spring was so high in picks, and eventually money. The Browns were the ones who guaranteed him a fifth year. The Browns were the team that, just after a grand jury declined to indict Watson, gave him more leverage and the largest fully guaranteed deal in NFL history. Watson’s no-trade clause meant he could pick his destination, and Cleveland did everything it could to ensure it would be his choice.

On Monday and Tuesday, operating under the belief that Watson would miss only six games, a handful of NFL teams were probably jealous that the Browns were going to get such a light punishment as a tax for acquiring a franchise-altering quarterback. However cynical you think the league is, it is worse. A dozen NFL franchises right now would sign up for taking a six-game hit in exchange for having Watson on their team. But a legal quagmire, a full-season saga, is a different situation altogether.

I am not all that moved by the Twitter posts you can set your watch by: the ones that point out that Calvin Ridley got a year-long suspension for a few bets, or that players have previously been suspended longer than six games for weed in the NFL. Different CBAs and different policies mean different outcomes. But the NFL is extremely aware of its optics—you don’t get to $11 billion a year in revenue without that awareness—and it knows six games was a joke. Hell, the Browns probably know it. This was the only move the NFL had. It will draw out a process it wishes were over. But in the end, the only choice the league had is to take one backlash over another.