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Further thoughts on the Deshaun Watson suspension

Just a few things I’ve read, to try to understand what happened here. Make of them what you will. Note that I drafted this before the news of the NFL’s appeal.

Pro Football Talk:

How does Watson, who faced 24 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, get suspended only six games when Cardinal receiver DeAndre Hopkins was suspended six games for trace amounts of a PED he claims he didn’t know he ingested and Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended a whole season for making $1,500 in parlay wagers?

On the surface, the answer is easy. These three players were suspended under three completely different policies: Personal Conduct, PED, and gambling.

There’s a more nuanced explanation. The PED policies and gambling policies go directly to the integrity of the game, whether by cheating in it or betting on it. The Personal Conduct Policy relates to off-duty behavior, conduct that has no connection to the league’s core business interests.

Not sure how much that nuance helps, but I suppose it’s worth keeping those distinctions in mind, if only to get the underlying facts straight.

CBS Sports:

There’s a chance that the length of the suspension could still change and that’s because the NFL is allowed to appeal the decision (Watson’s camp could also appeal the decision, but the NFLPA previously announced on Sunday that no appeal would be coming from that end).

If the NFL decides to appeal, it will create a new layer of drama and that’s because the appeal would be heard by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates. As of Monday afternoon though, the league had yet to make a decision about a possible appeal.

“We appreciate Judge Robinson’s diligence and professionalism throughout this process,” the NFL said in a statement. “Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”

[…]

Although the new collective bargaining agreement took away Goodell’s power to hand out a punishment, he didn’t really lose very much power since he’s the one who oversees the appeal process.

Here’s the pertinent language in the CBA:

“The Disciplinary Officer’s disciplinary determination will be final and binding subject only to the right of either party to appeal to the Commissioner. The appeal shall be in writing within three business days of the Disciplinary Officer’s decision, and any response to the appeal shall be filed in writing within two business days thereafter. The appeal shall be limited to arguments why, based on the evidentiary record below, the amount of discipline, if any, should be modified. The Commissioner or his designee will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement.”

Based on the language in the CBA, the NFL now has three days to file an appeal in writing. Once the appeal is filed, Goodell (or his designee) will have two days to respond to it.

If the NFL doesn’t appeal, then the case is over and Watson will serve a six-game suspension. It’s possible the league will go this route because it doesn’t want to undermine Robinson’s decision.

In my initial reaction, I said that I’d change “possible” to “highly likely”, and that I could not see the NFL stirring this up when they have a chance to let it go and get on with their business. Clearly, I was wrong about that.

Slate:

Why did Watson skate? It isn’t because Goodell doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Even if only for image maintenance, the NFL wanted a bigger chunk of games. But that does not let the NFL off the hook. It also does not mean all of the fault with the short suspension lies with the arbitrator, whom both management and labor asked to resolve the length of the suspension. At core, Watson will soon be under center for the Browns because the NFL spent years laying two sets of tracks that led straight to this decision and will soon lead the league beyond it. One was a disciplinary system that did not come down hard on violence against women for many years, and which complicated the NFL’s efforts to win a workplace dispute with Watson when it became clear that one of the best, most famous players in the NFL deserved a long, long break away from the game. The other was cultural. The NFL and its giant media industry cultivated an environment where any player as good as Watson can be two things at once—a hero whom fans adore and a commodity that teams crave—and where any inconveniences the real world might impose on those roles are just those: inconveniences. Watson did not get a light punishment because the NFL doesn’t care. He got one because the NFL is a universe where “caring” is not the point.

The contradictory thing about Robinson’s report is that she seems to generally agree with the NFL that Watson behaved horrendously toward his accusers. “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” she writes at one point. She writes that “it is difficult to give weight” to Watson’s wholesale denial not just of any criminal conduct, but of ever having so much as gotten an erection during one of the massages in question. She finds that by the NFL’s definition of sexual assault in its code of conduct, which is “unwanted sexual contact with another person,” Watson committed sexual assault. But Robinson calls Watson’s acts “non-violent sexual assault.” It is a mind-bending phrase. Can any sort of sexual assault be “non-violent”? Is there a way to breach consent and not be violent? Of course not. It is an inherently violent act, whether it involves blood and bruises or not. But to read Robinson’s decision, the NFL’s past laxness toward overt violence made it difficult for her to square the league’s desired punishment of Watson as a matter of workplace policy. “By ignoring past decisions because none involve ‘similar’ conduct, however, the NFL is not just equating violent conduct with non-violent conduct, but has elevated the importance of the latter without any substantial evidence to support its position,” Robinson says. The NFL decided that it cared about this player violating women, but because it hadn’t acted accordingly in the past, it couldn’t impose the punishment it wanted.

My mind is still trying to unbend from that one.

ESPN:

Basically, Robinson is saying something akin to, You want to argue that this behavior deserves a more severe penalty, fine. Maybe you’re right. But that’s not in your policy, and you can’t just make policy to support one specific case as it’s going on. If the league wants to do what it did post-Rice and adjust its policy to account for the type of behavior Watson is herein found guilty of, it should do that — then everyone would know.

Interesting argument, for sure, but it answers a lot of the questions about the length of the suspension vis-à-vis some others in the past. She goes on to write, “It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”

Remember, Robinson first decided she was not starting from a six-game baseline but from one of three games or fewer, based on precedent set by other nonviolent sexual assault cases. As “aggravating factors” (that is, reasons to increase the suspension), she cites Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse and his tardy notice to the NFL of the first-filed lawsuit.” As “mitigating factors” (that is, reasons to go easier on him), she cites “he is a first-time offender and had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events. He cooperated and has paid restitution.”

Very interestingly, she also notes the league could have placed Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list last year and chose not to, which she appears to think means the league didn’t consider his behavior worthy of such punishment until it saw the public reaction to it. She makes that clear in her conclusion when she writes, “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.”

Robinson writes that she settled on six games because it is the largest suspension ever imposed for nonviolent sexual conduct but that Watson’s behavior is more egregious than the behavior that led to previous suspensions for nonviolent sexual conduct.

If the NFL had taken domestic violence seriously from the beginning, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

The Ringer:

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.

[…]

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.)

I don’t have anything insightful to add to that.

Defector:

You do not need to have a PhD in workplace procedures to gather that a policy crafted in response to a public relations crisis will not work. In this case, the NFL created its anti-violence policy in the late 1990s after future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon was arrested for intimate-partner violence, for which he was found not guilty, followed by exposé after exposé from sports reporters about violence by players toward women, all amid the 1990s wave of tough-on-crime legislation. Like many of the pro-police, pro-prison policies of that era, the NFL’s plan to threaten its players into compliance with vague threats of “suspension” failed, has continued to fail, and probably will always fail because bad policy begets bad policy, no matter how many times you rework it, reframe it, or even renegotiate it. The personal conduct policy has been a failure from the moment it was created, (though this has not stopped other major North American sports leagues from copying it for the sake of public relations). Left to its own devices, the NFL will never get this right.

All the NFL can do is try to find a different person to blame, a new figure onto which it can foist this odious burden of reminding us all that a good enough player will always find a way back onto the field, with just their bank account a little lighter. On Monday, that person was retired judge Sue L. Robinson, who issued her decision to suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games after two dozen women sued Watson in civil court, all describing various levels of sexual misconduct by him during massage therapy appointments that included finding ways to touch them with his penis and ejaculating on them. Depending on who delivers your sports news, this was seen as either a humiliation for the NFL or great news for Watson’s new team, the Cleveland Browns. But what those quick takes never quite address is why the NFL and pro sports, time and time again, seem utterly clueless about what to do when a player is accused of violence.

[…]

Robinson ended her decision with the equivalent of a legal tongue-lashing for the NFL, essentially telling them that significant changes to how it handles player discipline must be collectively bargained. (“It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”) You could say the NFL has a precedent problem. It’s a problem with a solution—negotiate better rules with players during the next round of collective bargaining. The players would, in return, request significant concessions from the league, and that would be fair because that’s how unions protect the rights of workers. The NFL could completely revamp its conduct policy to include community service, therapy, more preventative measures like education, or one of the many tools shown to actually work. It could even ask for harsher punishments, though it’s always worth remembering that that zero-tolerance policies don’t work and harsh punishment does not deter crime. In return, the league could give players truly guaranteed contracts, better healthcare, or agree to stop extending the regular season. All of this would be fair and likely would withstand the scrutiny of a retired judge, like Robinson, if the league chose to go this route.

The NFL will never do it.

Diana Moskovitz has been on the sports-and-crime-and-society beat for a long time, and she’s always a must read on these stories.

And here’s one more from The Ringer, post-appeal by the NFL.

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.

I don’t know how much any of this helped me make sense of it all, but I feel like I needed to read all this. Hope it helped you a little.

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5 Comments

  1. Gary says:

    How about this? Watson’s 6-game suspension for over two dozen PROVEN cases of sexual abuse was the same as Zeke Elliott’s for a single unproved allegation by his ex-girlfriend AFTER he had broken up with her and after an investigator spent weeks with her & issued a report strongly doubting her testimony (and in which she had an obvious motive in disappointment and revenge at being left out of his sudden big money with the pros)? I have my own hypothesis, and it has nothing to do with the nature of the offenses and everything to do with league attitudes to the franchises.

  2. C.L. says:

    Oh shit. Did I miss the trial where Watson was (ultimately) found guilty of a crime ? Gary, can you post a link to the verdict-related article ?

    But at the end of the day, who really cares what DeShaun did besides Deshaun, the girls, his lawyer and theirs, and local TV ?

    #SpoilerAlert – no one.

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    I actually agree with C.L.. Does that mean C.L. will now change his mind? LOL

  4. C.L. says:

    Fear not, Paul – it’s unlikely we’re going to agree all that often.

  5. Jason Hochman says:

    Did the league appeal extend the suspension or is it still ongoing?

    The Browns office must be a little crazy to have given Watson a $230 million contract, with all of that money guaranteed. The Cleveland fans are passionate and committed to their team; I remember when Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, he was getting death threats. The fans deserve a team with better management.

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