Six games down. It’s the suspension. That’s it.
That was the ruling by retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson on Monday after considering the arguments for and against the punishment of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Robinson, the mediator who oversaw Watson’s hearing, ruled against the NFL’s recommendation that Watson should receive at least a year of suspension after being accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during treatment massage.
Reviewing the results of the league’s 15-month investigation into Watson, she called his conduct “predatory” and “egregious”.
The clock is now ticking on the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell. What will be the league’s next step in the sordid spectacle that is the Deshaun Watson case?
The NFL has until Thursday morning to appeal. Goodell may opt for a longer suspension, a decision the union and Watson would most likely challenge in federal court. He can also issue a fine that would recoup some of the nearly $45 million Watson received from the Browns as a signing bonus. But if the NFL just stoops and gives up without a fight, that will say a lot about how it views women and how seriously it takes their stories.
And for all of you Watson apologists, Robinson agreed wholeheartedly that Watson did wrong. He exposed himself. He deliberately touched the women repeatedly with his penis.
Here is a sampling of his findings:
“The NFL has met its burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL)” against four therapists who were identified in the league report .
“The NFL has assumed its burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, that Mr. Watson’s conduct posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.
“Mr. Watson knew that such sexualized contact was unwanted.
“Mr. Watson had a reckless disregard for the consequences of his conduct, which I find to amount to intentional conduct.
And yet, Robinson said she was limited. She could have imposed a much harsher sentence, but she refused to set a precedent. Instead, she relied on the NFL’s history of clemency. The most common discipline for “domestic or gender-based violence and sexual acts is a six-game suspension,” Robinson noted.
She then listed the other player suspensions, including one who had to sit out for 10 games “for multiple incidents of domestic violence to which the player pleaded guilty to battery.”
Relying on a precedent is understandable, even laudable. But this decision was not made by a court. The NFL doesn’t have to accept Robinson’s recommendation, especially not in a case where the player’s contract was structured, like Watson’s, to avoid a major financial hit for a suspension. When he signed a fully guaranteed $230 million contract with the Browns in March, the team agreed to a base salary of $1 million, meaning Watson will drop just over $300,000 in checks. games during his six-game suspension.
The league is a private entity. He may impose the sanctions he deems appropriate. If Watson, his lawyer and the players’ association have a problem with this, they can take legal action.
Let them go and keep the charges against Watson front and center in the public eye.
Harassment of women is nothing new in the NFL, which too often seems to represent the Neanderthal Football League. I wrote so much last week when Congress — not the league — tried to hold Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder to account for his team’s culture and misdeeds.
The Washington Post reported that Snyder settled a sexual misconduct complaint stemming from a 2009 incident. The NFL investigation into Watson lasted 15 months. These endless investigations are turning into a theater of the absurd only because the league and its commissioner have failed to set precedents that would allow for decisive action — the kind that would send a clear signal that the NFL does not condone the abuse of women.
As the Watson decision stands, at six games without a fine, no one wins.
Not the women, whose lawyer described the suspension as “a slap in the face.”
Not the league, whose personal conduct policy claims to “define, treat and sanction” players whose actions damage the NFL’s image.
Not the Browns, a franchise that has proven it will tear apart its dignity and sell its soul for a chance at finally becoming a Super Bowl contender.
Not Watson, who, despite being harassed by Browns fans in training camp, will forever be referred to as one of the league’s outcasts, an example of its misogynistic culture.
Not victims of sexual and domestic violence or their lawyers. “We’re preparing for that kind of disappointment,” Sondra Miller, president of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said in an interview Monday. “It’s a common feeling that offenders aren’t held accountable for their actions. So that’s part of how we feel today.
Who else? Certainly not the women who recounted being abused by what Robinson called “sexualized behavior.”
Twenty-four women have alleged in lawsuits that Watson engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior during massages that ran from fall 2019 to March 2021.
Watson was not charged in criminal court and settled with all but one of his accusers. This is not an uncommon outcome given the difficulty of litigating sexual misconduct cases, which often occur in private and boil down to conflicting accounts from the two people involved.
But when the NFL tightened its ethics policy in 2014, in response to the backlash over Ray Rice’s discipline, Goodell wrote that the league stood at “a higher level”.
To make good on this statement, common sense must prevail. Women need to be believed, especially when many of them tell stories of harassment and abuse.
Robinson makes it clear she believes sexual misconduct took place, but she’s been hampered by the league’s past when it comes to punishment. The NFL has been far from the truth, far too lenient when it comes to the police themselves and the imposition of penalties that underpin their rhetoric about women.
It’s time to start course-correcting. The league and its commissioner must oppose Monday’s decision and prepare for a fight.