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COVID and college football

We sure these sellout crowds are a good idea?

At Virginia Tech last Friday, the packed crowd bounced to “Enter Sandman.” At the University of Wisconsin the next day, fans jumped around to “Jump Around.”

College football and its crowd traditions are back to their full glory like they were in 2019, before Covid-19 restrictions sharply limited fan attendance in 2020.

Some of the country’s biggest powerhouses — including Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, to name a few — are hosting games to full capacity on Saturday. And fans who attend these games won’t have to prove their vaccination status, won’t be required to social distance and won’t have to wear masks in their seats.

The return of college football and its unique cultures, which began in earnest last week, are a source of communal bonding for sports fans, yet they also represent a source of anxiety for others.

[…]

Both the SEC and NCAA deferred to schools to make their own decisions — based on local and state requirements — when asked what each was doing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at football games. Both do have Covid-19 protocols for student-athletes.

“My ask of our fans is to try to take advantage of what science has done,” Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner, said last month.

Georgia’s plan to host such a large crowd comes as the state has fully vaccinated about half of its residents 12 and older, one of the 10 lowest vaccination rates among all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Athens-Clarke County, where the Bulldogs play, has a “high” rate of Covid-19 community transmission, the CDC says.

Last week marked the full opening of the college football season, and stadiums across the country were packed with fans eager to rejoin the communal sports experience.

In Georgia, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta hosted nearly 72,000 fans for an Alabama-Miami game on Saturday and hosted about 31,000 fans for the Louisville-Ole Miss game on Monday. At both games, the stadium roof was open and masks were required in enclosed spaces but not in open-air areas, and there were no vaccine requirements.

A number of the universities that have packed fans into seats this season require students to be vaccinated, including at large Big Ten schools Michigan (109,000 in attendance), Maryland (44,000) and Illinois (41,000).

These schools are hardly breaking new ground by holding packed games. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have similarly held full capacity events this summer, and the National Football League will do so when the season begins later this week.

This story was published Saturday morning, before this week’s games were played. Those other sports aren’t a great comparison because they have smaller crowds and their gamedays aren’t all-day party affairs. The SEC and some other conferences put an emphasis on getting players and coaches vaccinated, but getting fans vaccinated is not on their agenda. I can hardly blame them, because I can imagine the pushback they’d get if they tried. There’s evidence to suggest that limited-seating football games did not help spread COVID, but we are not doing limited seating any more – these are full stadia, with 80K to 100K people in attendance. Don’t be surprised if that has a negative effect.

UH officially joins the Big XII

Long time coming.

Hello, Big 12.

In a historic day, the University of Houston has accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference.

The Big 12’s presidents voted unanimously Friday to formally invite Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida to form a 14-team league.

UH will begin play in the Big 12 as early as fall 2023.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” UH chancellor Renu Khator said in a statement. “Our expectations for our University remain high, our aspirations continue to be bold, and we embrace this new opportunity to compete at the highest levels in all we do.”

[…]

As members of the American Athletic Conference, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF must give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league and pay a $10 million exit fee.

BYU is an independent in football and could join sooner.

What the Big 12 will resemble in a few years remains uncertain. Texas and Oklahoma said they will honor current contracts until 2025 when television rights with ESPN and Fox run out. Both schools would have to pay a buyout of $80 million to leave early.

See here for the background. Scheduling could be a little chaotic over the next season or two until everyone gets where they’re going. I’d bet a nickel on all the moving parts settling into their new places in time for next fall, but there’s a lot that could cause delays. I assume the AAC will now go trawling for some new members, so there’s still more to this story. In the meantime, congrats to the Coogs for finally catching the car they’ve been chasing since 1996.

The Big XII is finally ready for UH

Hope it was worth the wait.

Five years after a potential match fizzled, the University of Houston and Big 12 Conference are on the verge of uniting after all.

UH has emerged as a leading contender to join a reconfigured 12-team Big 12 with a formal vote planned for next week, two people with knowledge of the talks said Thursday.

The shift comes just over a month after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, starting another round of conference realignment that could eventually fulfill UH’s longtime desire to join one of the major conferences in college athletics.

Earlier reports Thursday by ESPN, The Athletic and the Dallas Morning News said the Big 12 has targeted UH, BYU, Central Florida and Cincinnati as expansion candidates to join the league’s eight remaining schools. Long the powerbrokers of the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma have accepted invitations to join the SEC in 2025.

The Big 12 requires eight of its current 10 members to approve candidates before expansion can occur. A person with knowledge of the process said UH is expected to receive unanimous approval.

The Morning News said the expansion timetable “remains very fluid,” with one source saying, “it can move as fast as everyone wants it to.”

[…]

By adding UH, UCF and Cincinnati, the Big 12 would raid the American Athletic Conference, which has long been considered the best league outside of the so-called Power Five that includes the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. The addition of the three schools would allow the Big 12 to remain involved in the Houston television market, extend its reach to Florida and add a Cincinnati program that begins this season in the football top 10.

BYU, which is independent in football, brings a strong national brand, large fan base due to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rich football tradition. All of BYU’s athletic programs except football currently play in the West Coast Conference.

See here for some background on the last time UH was on the Big XII dance card. As you know, this is all the result of UT and OU saying good-bye to the Big XII for greener pastures. Cincinnati and UCF make sense as additions and BYU is a nice get, probably the biggest non-Notre Dame free agent out there, but it’s going to make for some geographic challenges – Utah is a long way away from the next closest school in the conference. The PAC 12 probably makes more sense logistically for BYU, but they decided to stand pat for whatever the reason. BYU is now the center of another political and religious fight, which may bring some negative attention to their future conference and conference-mates, but that’s more or less the cost of doing business these days. The UH Board of Regents is having a special meeting today to discuss their Big XII prospects, and I think we can expect that they will go along with any plan to join up. So congrats, Coogs, you finally made it.

UPDATE: UH’s Board of Regents has officially approved pursuing Big XII membership.

FBI involved in Deshaun Watson case

Never a good sign, though there might be a wrinkle in this one.

The FBI is looking into sexual assault allegations against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to opposing legal parties in the player’s civil court cases.

The extent of those probes remains unclear. Defense attorney Rusty Hardin on Wednesday declined to call any federal interest in the sexual assault allegations part of an “investigation,” but he said he knows definitively that one FBI investigation is underway into claims that a woman extorted Watson for money.

The high-profile defense attorney held a 20-minute news conference in direct response to recent statements by his opponent, Tony Buzbee, who said that he spoke to representatives of the federal agency.

Buzbee told the website League of Justice that the FBI appeared interested in Watson’s alleged use of the internet and interstate travel to solicit sessions from massage therapists.

Hardin said he learned Tuesday that the FBI was checking into some claims presented in the 22 civil suits filed earlier this year against Watson. He said he welcomes those federal investigations, but he simultaneously denounced Buzbee for bringing them to the media.

“He wants to leverage his civil lawsuits,” Hardin said. “He knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run. But he wants to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay him money so he can ride into the sunset.”

Buzbee, who is representing the women suing the 25-year-old for sexual assault and harassment, denied that any of his clients were being investigated.

“I think Rusty is reaching for straws and that’s kind of silly,” Buzbee said. “God bless him, the FBI, is, not as far as I know, is not investigating the women who have been victimized. They’re investigating Deshaun Watson.”

Buzbee later clarified that he does not know whether there is an official “investigation” into Watson, but that he did speak with federal agents.

[…]

Hardin on Wednesday focused on claims that one of those women extorted Watson for money before filing a lawsuit alleging he forced oral sex. He read text messages that appeared to show the woman apologizing for her own behavior during a session.

The attorney said the FBI approached his team in April about those allegations, and Watson later spoke to the bureau about them.

Buzbee said he detected irony in Hardin’s statements about his client.

“He’s doing the best he can do, but it’s kind of sad that he’s turning it around on the women,” he said.

Hard to know what to make of this. I’m loathe to believe any claim Tony Buzbee makes, but I’d say he’s more likely to be right about what the FBI is doing than Rusty Hardin is in this case. But who knows? The FBI said nothing as per their usual policy, and whatever it is they may be doing, they’ll be done when they’re done. So we wait.

The PAC-20?

Here’s one possible outcome for the left behind members of the Big XII.

According to multiple reports, the commissioners of the Pac-12 and Big 12 met Tuesday to discuss how the conferences might benefit from working together or maybe even merging.

The merging part has us very interested.

A full merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12 would create a 20-team conference with schools in every major U.S. time zone, something no other conference has.

That would make it unique and very different and potentially pretty valuable in the ever-important TV contract discussions for conferences.

What could a Big 12 and Pac-12 merger look like?

Here’s some possibilities to split up the conference, should the Pac-12 and Big 12 decide it is in their best interests to join forces.

You can read the rest. There’s lots of reasons why this probably won’t happen, but it’s at least amusing to contemplate. We live in very strange times.

Also in the “we live in strange sports times” news department:

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said the league has never “plotted” with ESPN to pursue teams from other conferences.

“Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures,” Aresco said Wednesday during a video conference call to kickoff AAC media day.

Aresco said the AAC is not actively looking to add schools.

“I want to emphasize we are not looking at realignment and not out there attempting to take teams,” Aresco said.

[…]

Aresco said he has not spoken to any Big 12 schools.

“Any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regards to the structure of any other conference is completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation,” Aresco said.

See here for the background on that. We’ll see if Bob Bowlsby provides some receipts for that initial claim. In the meantime, if the AAC and every other conference isn’t thinking about realignment and what they might do about it, I don’t know what they are doing. I’m not saying they should want to live in this ever-religning world, but I am saying it is the world they are in fact living in, and they should adjust accordingly.

The Austin Bills?

Noted for the record.

Maybe they’re negotiating. But in any negotiation, the negotiators need to be willing to act in order to have any credibility.

As to the negotiation between the Bills and Buffalo that has begun with the Bills wanting taxpayer funding to pay the full price of a new stadium, an impasse could lead the Bills threatening to move — and potentially moving — elsewhere.

Citing an unnamed ownership source, Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com reports that Austin is a possible destination — or threat — as one of the cities to which Bills ownership was referring when telling government negotiators that “there are other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it.”

San Antonio was one of the leverage destinations for the Raiders before they moved to Las Vegas, and the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans weren’t believed to be thrilled about the possibility of a third team coming to Texas. Presumably, they wouldn’t want a team in Austin, either.

Hard to know how seriously to take this. I suppose the reason Austin is being dangled as an alternate for the Bills and not San Antonio is that Austin doesn’t have an NFL-ready stadium at hand and would have to build one, which is clearly what the Bills’ owners want. San Antonio has the Alamodome, which was used by the Saints in 2005, but is presumably not up to date with the latest luxury items that a typically avaricious NFL owner desires, so it would not do. San Antonio, which has in recent years spent a bunch of money on Alamodome-related projects, may be less interested in financing a brand new playpen. Who knows? Anyway, if this particular item gains traction in the coming months, you’ll know that this is where it all started. CBS Sports, KXAN, Reform Austin, and the Statesman have more.

Big XII visits the Lege

It’s something to do, anyway.

As the University of Texas prepares for a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, state lawmakers are working to determine how the move will affect the rest of the state — and whether they might be able to intervene in such a move in the future.

The first hearing of the committee on the future of college sports in Texas on Monday produced more questions than answers. Senators, economists and representatives of the universities left behind brainstormed how the Big 12 could remain viable — perhaps by adding up-and-coming Texas programs such as the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University.

But with the exits of UT and the University of Oklahoma sealed, there was little lawmakers could do but commiserate and propose potential solutions.

“I think there are options for us to partner with other conferences, there may be opportunity for mergers, there may be opportunities to add members,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. “There may be other opportunities that are currently unforeseen. … The multitude and severity of the challenges that are out there right now is likely to cause lots of changes.”

The eight remaining schools — which include Waco’s Baylor University, Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University and Lubbock’s Texas Tech — agree that “staying together is probably our best approach in the near-term,” Bowlsby said.

[…]

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the chair of the newly formed committee, said she’d invited representatives from UT and ESPN to testify on Monday, but they declined. Texas A&M, which left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, also rejected an invitation.

See here for some background on the committee. Nothing is going to happen, as this issue isn’t on the special session agenda and of course there’s a quorum break going on, but everyone got to express their feelings, and I’m sure that helped. As for UT, they weren’t there to share their perspective, but they still had something to say.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on Monday publicly defended the school’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference along with the University of Oklahoma in 2025 and denied Texas lawmakers’ claims that the school violated Big 12 bylaws in doing so.

“This future move is the right thing for our student athletes for our student athletes, our programs and our University in the face of rapid change and increased uncertainty,” Hartzell said.

[…]

“It is timed to avoid the legislature in its legislative session, where it is structured with the power to make decisions,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Hartzell said that he initiated discussions with the SEC in the spring — while the regular legislative session was going on.

He disputed claims made by lawmakers and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the Texas school violated the league’s bylaws by not giving advance notice of their departure.

“I want to set the record straight — we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell said. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Lawmakers argue that the process was done in the dark, and would have far-reaching effects on the remaining schools in the conference, notably the three that reside in Texas.

See here for more on the accusations of UT and OU’s alleged duplicity along with ESPN. Lord knows, this Legislature knows how to do things in the dark. Game recognizes game.

Big XII accuses ESPN of sabotage

Interesting!

In the long, sordid and divisive history of conference realignment, there has always been feverish levels of mistrust, backroom allegations and message board conspiracies when schools switch leagues. But in the decades of cloak-and-dagger maneuverings, political gamesmanship and rival in-fighting that have always accompanied realignment, we’ve never seen a moment like Wednesday afternoon.

Yahoo Sports first reported that the Big 12 sent a “cease and desist” letter to ESPN essentially demanding the television network stop plotting to sabotage and cannibalize the league. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby accused ESPN of attempting to “harm the league” for ESPN’s financial benefit. That wasn’t even the most memorable part.

From there, Bowlsby did a series of media interviews where he accused ESPN of plotting with another league – later revealed to be the American Athletic Conference per Yahoo Sources – to attempt to kill off the Big 12. Essentially, Bowlsby said he found evidence that ESPN had been “providing incentives” to a league to lure the Big 12 leftovers away after Oklahoma and Texas bolted without warning.

“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right.”

There’s more, so read the rest, and see the letter in the original story. ESPN denies the allegations, as you might expect. I have no idea what happens next, as I have definitely been operating under the assumption that this is going to happen and will very likely happen well before 2025, but this suggests there will be a lot more friction than I anticipated, and that the Big XII will aim to make it as expensive as possible for UT and OU. And, apparently, ESPN. We’ll see how that works out for them.

Meanwhile, since this is of course all about money, there’s this.

The decisions by the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma to seek to leave the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference could affect more than just which teams they play. The decision can also have a big economic impact for the rest of the Big 12 and the communities that are home to their teams.

The move is not yet approved, but if it goes through, it could cost as much as $1.3 billion a year in lost athletic revenues, tourism spending and other economic activity for communities across the Big 12, according to an analysis by Ray Perryman, an economist and CEO of the Perryman Group, an economic consulting group in Waco.

Without Texas and OU, the rest of the conference is likely facing smaller television deals, lower attendance, and other negative consequences, Perryman said in a report released Thursday.

Ray Perryman is the go-to guy for this kind of economic analysis, and you have to respect his ability to crank them out in such a timely manner. I don’t doubt that the remnants of the Big XII will do worse without UT and OU, and some of that will trickle down to the cities the schools are in. I suspect those numbers are overblown, but I couldn’t say by how much. The report is here, judge for yourself.

SEC accepts UT and OU

Time to start printing the money.

The Southeastern Conference voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to invite the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma to join their 14-member league during a meeting with the league member’s presidents and chancellors.

“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”

[…]

Meanwhile, UT and OU could see their revenue climb significantly through the move from television revenue, ticket revenue and additional branding opportunities.

The decision may also tie into a Supreme Court ruling last month that says athletes can earn money based on their intellectual property, meaning flagship schools must find new ways to earn revenue.

Although UT and OU said in their letter to [Big XII Commissioner Bob] Bowlsby that they don’t plan to renew their deal with the conference past 2025, there is speculation that the two schools would not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025. They would need to pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early, but are still legally required to give 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

“I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports. “That’s what they’ve done so far.”

After two closed session meetings this week, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted late Wednesday afternoon to support Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, despite concerns the Board had over the “communication process.” A&M joined the SEC from the Big 12 a decade ago.

“The board concluded that this expansion would enhance the long-term value of the SEC to student athletes and all of the institutions they represent — including Texas A&M,” the statement read.

See here for the previous update, and see here for the story on the A&M Board of Regents getting on board, presumably once they realized the money involved. Put a pin in that quote from Bob Bowlsby, there will be more about him and the Big XII tomorrow. You know I believe that UT and OU will be playing SEC conference games well before 2025, but there may be more obstacles in that path than I first thought. The Chron has more.

More criminal complaints against Deshaun Watson

Yeesh.

Multiple women have filed complaints with the Houston Police Department related to Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to both sides in the football player’s civil sexual assault cases.

Almost half of the 22 women who filed civil claims against Watson have given sworn statements to police and spoken to NFL investigators, attorney Tony Buzbee said Sunday. Defense lawyer Rusty Hardin specified on Monday that eight women in the suits have filed complaints with police. He also said two new women not in litigation have done the same, which ESPN first reported.

Houston police on Monday declined to comment beyond an initial statement they released in early April. One person filed a complaint, they said at the time, leading the agency to open an investigation.

The police and NFL investigations remain underway with no signs of immediate resolution for Watson, who returned to training camp this week amid the allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Those cases as well as the lawsuits are trudging along, keeping Watson in a holding pattern while he doesn’t play and demands a trade — that in itself an unlikely occurrence until his legal issues end, team sources have said.

“Both processes are very lengthy,” Buzbee said, referring to the police and NFL probes. “We expect to provide further information to the NFL from all victims.”

[…]

Hardin said on Monday Houston officers should also speak to the remaining 14 women who sued but did not file police reports, he said, in order to complete a full investigation.

The lawsuits are meanwhile moving through the discovery process in the Harris County civil courts. Buzbee said his team is currently obtaining written information from Watson, including electronic data and payment records.

See here and here for some background. The complaints by two women who are not suing Watson sounds ominous to me. I know that he’s Rusty Hardin and I’m not, but if I were Rusty Hardin, I might be a little worried about what the police might find when they talk to those other 14 women.

UT and OU make it officially official

Smell ya later, Big XII.

After a week of speculation, the University of Texas at Austin announced Tuesday that alongside the University of Oklahoma it has asked to join the Southeastern Conference starting July 1, 2025.

The news came a day after both schools announced they would not renew their media rights contract with the Big 12 in 2025. If the two schools were to join the SEC, they would join the likes of top football schools such as University of Florida, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama.

“We believe that there would be mutual benefit to the Universities on the one hand, and the SEC on the other hand, for the Universities to become members of the SEC,” UT President Jay Hartzell and OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr. said in a joint letter to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Sankey said in a statement that while the SEC hasn’t actively pursued new members, it will welcome change when there is consensus among members.

“We will pursue significant change when there is a clear consensus among our members that such actions will further enrich the experiences of our student-athletes and lead to greater academic and athletic achievement across our campuses,” Sankey said.

The move leaves the rest of the Big 12 conference, which includes Texas Tech University, Baylor University and Texas Christian University, in a state of uncertainty. Monday afternoon, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement that the remaining eight institutions will work together to ensure future success.

“Although our eight members are disappointed with the decisions of these two institutions, we recognize that intercollegiate athletics is experiencing rapid change and will most likely look much different in 2025 than it does currently,” Bowlsby said. “The Big 12 Conference will continue to support our member institutions’ efforts to graduate student-athletes, and compete for Big 12 and NCAA championships.”

The Monday news was about saying goodbye to the Big XII, or at least saying that they wanted to say goodbye. This is about saying Hello to the SEC, which one presumes will be returned in kind. I suppose it’s possible that things could go pear-shaped from here, but that would be a huge upset. Most likely, if you’re a Longhorn or Sooner, get ready to start shelling out for new SEC-branded gear.

A personal anecdote: Back in 2003, during the long special session slog to re-redistrict Texas on Tom DeLay’s orders, Rice played UT in a football game at Reliant Stadium. I contributed a bit to the MOB halftime script for that show, which was about the redistricting saga and how we should never leave the task of redistricting to politicians. “After all,” the bit concluded, “the last time the Governor got involved with redistricting, Baylor wound up in the Big XII”. It got a big laugh from the mostly UT fans. Seems like the joke holds up pretty well all these years later.

There is of course political involvement in this round of Conference Bingo, and so naturally our state’s biggest self-promoter has rushed out to the front of the parade in hope of being mistaken for a leader.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked Sen. Jane Nelson to chair a new select committee on the “Future of College Sports in Texas,” a move that came hours after Texas and Oklahoma issued a joint statement to the Big 12 that served as the first step toward leaving the conference.

In a tweet sent out Monday night Patrick said the committee’s purpose would be to “study the athletic & economic impact to TX schools & communities by UT’s exit.” A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2.

This is just the latest bit of political theatre in the face of the state flagship’s impending departure from the Big 12, a conference it founded in 1994 that currently includes four Texas-based members: UT, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech.

Hey, Dan, let me know when you plan to have a hearing to fix the grid and claw back some of the money that was heisted from way too many paying customers from the freeze.

UT and OU make their official move to exit the Big XII

It’s just a matter of time now. And money. Always money.

The University of Texas at Austin announced Monday morning that it will not renew its sports media rights contract with the Big 12 that is set to end in 2025, giving the first formal signal that it’s planning to leave the athletics conference.

The decision comes after rumors surfaced last week that UT-Austin and the University of Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, which would then include 16 schools.

The move was announced in a joint statement from UT-Austin and Oklahoma.

“Both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future,” the statement read.

[…]

The financial impact on the [remaining] schools could be devastating. Records show that media rights represent the single largest income stream for Texas Tech athletics. Its total athletics revenue during the 2020 fiscal year was $90.4 million, meaning the Big 12 payouts accounted for more than one-third of its total earnings.

That major-conference money helped allow it to limit the amount of money the university transfers into its athletics department to under $50,000. Public universities outside of major conferences in Texas have been known to funnel millions into their athletics programs to keep the departments afloat. (TCU and Baylor are private schools, and their financial numbers are not public.)

See here for the previous update. I’m old enough to remember that one big reason why the old Southwest Conference fell apart is that some schools thought some other schools were not pulling their weight in terms of financial reward for the conference as a whole. (A broader geographic appeal, and thus bigger potential TV audiences, was another significant factor.) Speaking as a Rice Owls fan, I feel your pain, Texas Tech and Baylor. Sucks to be on the other side of that, doesn’t it?

Sources from the Big 12 told ESPN that Monday’s statement from UT and OU doesn’t fully guarantee that the schools remain in the Big 12 through 2025. There is the possibility that they can pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early and give a required 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

There is also speculation that OU and Texas would also not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025, according to the publication. If the future of the Big 12 conference is in doubt, other schools could also look elsewhere for a landing place.

I for one would bet on UT and OU making their exit from the Big XII well before 2025. All of the previous breakups, starting with Arkansas leaving for the SEC in 1990, happened within a year. Whatever the contract terms are now, UT and OU will have plenty of incentive to buy their way out of them, and the remaining schools will ultimately take the cash as a preferable option to uncertainty and a hell of a lot of awkwardness. I will be shocked if UT and OU aren’t fully integrated into the SEC by the start of the 2023 football season, and it would not surprise me if they’re there for 2022. That’s the world we live in. The Chron and Slate, which runs some financial numbers, have more.

A Deshaun Watson sighting

Noted for the record.

Deshaun Watson made a shrewd move Sunday when he reported early for training camp with the other quarterbacks and rookies.

Watson showed up at NRG Stadium for the first time since the end of last season, avoiding a fine of $50,000 a day, creating a colossal distraction for a team in rebuilding mode and putting pressure on the Texans to make a move.

But what could that move be?

Watson reiterated he still wants to be traded. That means he doesn’t want to be at the facility, and the Texans don’t want him there, but a trade doesn’t appear imminent, according to team sources. Any move would likely come when his legal issues are resolved.

[…]

The Texans have options when it comes to Watson. He can attend meetings and practice. He can be given an excused absence and be able to leave and work out on his own without being fined. He can be placed on the exempt list (essentially paid administrative leave) by commissioner Roger Goodell until the league concludes its investigation.

The league’s personal conduct policy empowers Goodell to put a player on the exempt list “when an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this Policy.”

The conduct policy says that Goodell “may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so,” and adds: “This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.”

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil cases said “almost half” have given sworn statements to the police and spoken to the NFL. He said he expects to give the NFL more information.

Watson or the NFL Players Association could appeal his placement on paid leave. A player on paid leave cannot practice or play in games but is permitted to be at the team’s facility for meetings, workouts, therapy and rehabilitation.

Just a reminder, the first of the depositions by Watson’s accusers may begin in September. There is a criminal complaint, filed in April, that is still under investigation. There’s no formal timeline for when (or if) the NFL may act on the exempt list; some people think he should already be on it. We’re just waiting for updates until then. Sean Pendergast has more.

The A&M and AAC responses to UT and OU and the SEC

Moving from denial to bluster.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has a message for any newcomers to the Southeastern Conference: “We’re ready.”

Texas and Oklahoma are preparing to exit the Big 12 and join the SEC, just as A&M did nearly a decade ago. The Longhorns and Sooners are expected to inform the Big 12 this coming week and begin preparing for their pending exits — and how soon they join the SEC (whether by 2022 or as late as 2025) is to be determined.

“We believe that throughout our time in the SEC, Texas A&M has become stronger than ever,” Bjork told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “We’re the largest university in Texas and in the SEC. We have 550,000 former students. We’re knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, and our women’s basketball team is the reigning SEC champion. We’ve got so many Olympians. There are so many great things and strengths about our program.

“As you look at all of this and our landscape, our position is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to join?’ The SEC is in the best position to lead in this transformative time in college athletics, and obviously there are others wanting to join us in that journey. Here in Texas, we’ve paved that way, and we’ve been leading that way over the last 10 years.”

A&M and other SEC programs apparently were largely kept out of the loop on informal discussions among UT, OU and the SEC in recent months, and Bjork said A&M is addressing that with the league.

“Those conversations are being had … there are definitely procedural matters that need to come forward, and those things are being discussed,” Bjork said.

A&M is pivoting from its early stance when the Chronicle broke the news on Wednesday at SEC Media Days that UT and OU intended to join the powerful conference.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t blame A&M for feeling blindsided by this, but their first mistake was in thinking that anyone outside Aggie Nation cared. It’s all about the money, y’all.

I also found this amusing.

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12.

For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it.

It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.”

Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore.

And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU.

The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions.

For what it’s worth, in my previous update I linked to a Yahoo News story that suggested it would be the diminished Big XII that would be aggressive in courting AAC schools to join them. That has been the normal flow of events in the conference-hopping game, though one must admit that “Big XII minus UT and OU” is a lot less formidable, and maybe not so much bigger or grander than the AAC or the Mountain West. I just enjoyed the Mouse That Roared energy from this story. Maybe it plays that way and maybe it doesn’t, but I suppose there’s no harm in assuming one is now on equal terms with a former big boy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

One more with UT, OU, and the SEC

It’s happening. I know, it’s early, and there’s resistance, and stuff can happen, but come on. It’s happening.

Texas and Oklahoma are prepared to inform the Big 12 they will not renew their media rights agreement with the league when the current deal expires in 2025, a conference-shattering move that could come as early as Monday morning.

A Big 12 source confirmed both the Longhorns and Sooners are preparing to break from the league they helped found in 1994. The Chronicle reported on Wednesday that the schools had discussed a move to the SEC and that an announcement could come in the next few weeks. Declining to extend or negotiate a new media rights agreement (first reported by Dallas television station WFAA) with the Big 12 and providing notice of intent to withdraw to will allow Texas and OU to formally begin the process of aligning with a new conference.

But Texas and Oklahoma would still be bound by the grant of rights, which bestows the schools’ first- and second-tier media rights to the Big 12. If Texas and Oklahoma exit prior to June 30, 2025, when that agreement expires, the Big 12 gets to keep the TV money a school generates even after it leaves.

Withdrawing members are also obligated to pay a commitment buyout fee. That amount is equal to conference media rights distributions that would otherwise have been paid out to the program(s). The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million each to its 10 member schools during the 2020-21 fiscal year, a $3-million drop from the previous year due to effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby believes distributions could jump to $40 million or more next fiscal year, which could make Texas’ potential buyout hit $80 million.

Even with all the potential obstacles – Texas A&M’s fervent objections, vitriol from the rest of the Big 12, an effort by some Texas and Oklahoma representatives to turn conference realignment into a legislative issue – the belief is Texas and Oklahoma are bound for a new conference sooner rather than later.

See here and here for the background, and here for the WFAA story. The money issue will work itself out one way or another, even if it is just a matter of waiting until the current agreements expire. I suppose that might give the legislators now frantically filing bills and making unanswered phone calls to Greg Abbott some time to throw up obstacles to UT, but I don’t believe there’s a force in this world that will stop the money train. Nothing ever has.

Assuming this does happen – and you should be – there will be massive ripple effects throughout the rest of the NCAA, just as there were a few years ago when we last went through a big round of inter-conference shuffleboard.

Expect the Big 12 to be aggressive in adding schools. It’ll knock on doors at Arizona and Arizona State. Perhaps it’ll try and lure Colorado back and pry Utah. The Pac-12 is weak now, but the core of USC, Oregon, UCLA and Washington are all more attractive to be aligned with than any of the Big 12 schools.

From there, the Big 12 will decide how big it wants to get. It has to decide whether to add two, four or six schools. Four seems like the most reasonable number, with Cincinnati, UCF, USF, BYU and Boise State the most likely candidates from outside the state of Texas. The potential addition of Houston and SMU becomes complicated, as Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech wouldn’t have much interest in more in-state competition.

Remember, it’s streaming subscriptions, not cable boxes, that matter most. BYU would appear to have the best option for that, with its national following. But BYU is always complicated, which prevented the Big 12 from adding it in 2016 when the Cougars’ complicated LGBTQ history became a factor.

UCF and USF have great markets, but would the Big 12 want two Florida footholds? Cincinnati is a preseason Top 10 team that has been working hard behind the scenes to build for this moment. It also brings a big market and fertile recruiting area.

This is all sub-optimal for the American Athletic Conference, as it’ll be a familiar trickle-down. In a similar food chain fallout that followed the ACC cannibalizing the Big East a decade ago, the Big 12 will go after the most attractive AAC candidates. The AAC will do its best to hold on to its top programs but a reconstructed Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma should offer a more attractive financial landing spot than the current AAC.

[…]

The ACC is in a difficult spot because it ate a bad deal from ESPN to get a linear network. Now it is frozen for two decades in an antiquated agreement, as the ACC gives schools more than $32 million per year.

[ACC Commissioner Jim] Phillips needs to do something dynamic to blow up that deal and get back to the bargaining table. Those options are limited, and ESPN isn’t going to be eager to give up a sweetheart deal on its end.

The loss of Texas as an option is a huge blow to the ACC’s ambitions, as multiple sources indicated that the ACC was caught by surprise Wednesday. The ACC’s other big play was Notre Dame, but the league failed to use any leverage it had on Notre Dame as a quasi-member the past few years. The new College Football Playoff proposal doubles as a security blanket for Notre Dame’s independence, which means little incentive for it to find a league home. Especially with its own lucrative TV deal coming.

The best remaining option for the ACC will be some type of scheduling arrangement or merger with the Pac-12. And that hints at another potential ripple from this move – is this going to be remembered as the pivot point toward super conferences?

There has long been a notion in college athletics that the Big Ten and SEC were pulling away from all the other leagues because of the financial success of their networks and the corresponding success on the field. Now, the Big Ten will go to market without the adrenaline jolt that the SEC got in its deal. The only corresponding move the Big Ten could make would be a play for Notre Dame, but that remains unlikely because of how secure Notre Dame’s future is in the new football playoff.

The issue for the Big Ten would be that Ohio State is isolated as the league’s power. Could the Big Ten leverage the potential of its next deal with a move to answer, adding Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson to cover the league’s Eastern flank and fortify the Interstate 95 corridor? There will be pressure on Warren to be bold. But the ACC is protected by a grant of rights through the length of its TV deal.

“It’s about combining forces now,” said a high-ranking college official. “Who teams up with who? Do we end up with four leagues? Do we end up with three? Or do we go to a 32-team NFL model. This is going to be earth-shattering.”

[PAC 12 Commissioner George] Kliavkoff joked on Twitter about his active first month as commissioner getting more interesting. The Pac-12 is last in line to go to market, and there’s a feeling that it needs to do something creative. There’s still great value in the West Coast, even if the football has been subpar for the past five years. But this move, the Big Ten deal and an upcoming deal for Notre Dame potentially put the Pac-12 in a position of weakness thanks to a lack of suitors.

The ripples of this potential SEC deal will be felt from coast to coast. And it’s not good news for any of the other leagues because of how much ESPN oxygen this sucks up. As one industry source put it: “The current schools in the SEC wouldn’t agree to this if all of a sudden their games are relegated to ESPNU. It’s not just money, it’s exposure.”

The ACC, PAC 12 and Big 10 all have new commissioners whose jobs just got a lot more stressful. New Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren had his first media day after the UT/OU story broke, and that subject was a big part of the conversation. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but assume that whatever the college football world looks like now – and as that Yahoo story notes, this is entirely driven by football, with basketball at best an afterthought – it will be different soon. If your school isn’t part of the action, it’s being left behind. I don’t make the rules and I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s how it is.

Some legislators want to keep UT out of the SEC

This is kind of hilarious.

As the college athletics world roils over the possibility of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 conference, a group of Texas legislators with ties to other universities in the state has mobilized.

Four prominent lawmakers — one each with ties to Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University — met with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff Thursday, one day after news broke that UT and OU had reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining, according to a source briefed about the meeting and an Abbott spokesperson. Abbott is a UT alumnus and outspoken Longhorn fan.

The four lawmakers were Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee and attended Texas A&M; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who received his law degree and MBA from Texas Tech and chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee; Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and was a student body president at Baylor; and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former TCU athlete. Kolkhorst declined comment and the other three lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comments Thursday evening.

Leach and Burrows have already expressed their concern about a potential move on social media, with Leach saying on Twitter that he was “working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.”

“This is about much more than college sports,” Leach wrote. “The impact UT’s decision would have on communities & businesses all across Texas would be real, substantial and potentially devastating. On behalf of those concerned Texans, the Texas Legislature has an obligation to be involved.”

See here for the background. Nothing is happening in the Lege right now, for obvious reasons, and one wonders what motivation “outspoken Longhorns fan” Abbott would have to stop his alma mater from making this move, since he’d have to add the item to the next special session agenda. For sure, if UT and OU leave the Big XII it will consign TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech to a diminished future, but that’s a result of longtime forces in college sports. Their foundation wouldn’t be any firmer, they’d just be holding off the tide for another day. Speaking again as a fan of a team that was left behind in the 90s, I understand their fears, but by the same token since they were among the leavers, I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t rush to sympathize. Sean Pendergast, Jerome Solomon, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: There’s now a bill to effect this end, HB298. If it gets added to the call, and if there’s a quorum when that happens, then maybe that has a chance. Don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: I’m dying:

Sources: Gov. Abbott not returning calls from top Republicans in the Texas Legislature about UT trying to head to the SEC

Republicans like Chairman Dustin Burrows and Chair Brian Birdwell have filed bills to block UT from changing conferences, but of course that’s not on the special session agenda. The governor’s office has gone quiet.

There’s been a real distinct lack of high comedy this legislative season. I want to thank the universities of Texas and Oklahoma for providing the opportunity to bring a little of that back.

Are the college conference dominoes set up for a tumble again?

This would be a big deal.

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon.

Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first national superconference.

“Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics,” UT responded in a statement Wednesday. “We will not address rumors or speculation.”

OU, in its own similar statement, offered: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

[…]

Another person with knowledge of the schools’ interest in jumping to the SEC said it could be the first step in the long-awaited break between haves and have-nots in the college sports world. Most of those scenarios have involved four superconferences of 16 schools each, but the observer said the eventual winnowing down could result in an NFL-like scenario with as few as 20 to 30 schools in the top tier.

The eventual impact, the second source said, could be the biggest change agent in college sports since the 1984 court decision involving Oklahoma and Georgia that allowed schools to market certain media rights without being limited to conference-only agreements.

“You’re going to see shifts happen like they’ve never happened before,” he added, “but it’s not going to happen for another three years.”

The recent developments in athletics (possible expansion of the college football playoff) and legal circles (players’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness) are leading Oklahoma and Texas to consider moves based not on regional or competitive ties but on economic forces.

The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that the two networks had declined to discuss extending the contract past 2025.

“The general result is that, at this time, with so much uncertainty in the media marketplace as well as the landscape for collegiate athletics, our partners, ESPN and FOX, are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in late May. “They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go.”

As colleges face new challenges with name, image and likeness reforms and the recent Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the NCAA’s beloved “student-athlete” model, the second source said, more powerful schools will seek to protect their economic base by flocking to like-minded superpowers.

“Schools have worked so hard to hide the fact that the collegiate game is nothing but the NFL hiding behind the veil of education,” the second source said. “Sports is mirroring what is happening in the broader context of society. It is not exempt from the same forces that affected K-mart or Blockbuster, who enjoyed success but were not able to change. To survive, you have to be able to change in real time.”

As the story notes, it’s been nine years since Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC; Nebraska and Colorado also departed the conference, for the Big 10 and the PAC 12, respectively. A&M’s athletic director is quoted in the story as being unfavorable to the idea – basically, A&M got there first and they deserve to have the SEC to themselves – but I doubt that will carry much weight in the end. Money talks, and UT and OU represent a lot of it.

If this happens, and I’m inclined to believe it will, we will wind up with a vastly different college athletics landscape in short order. For one thing, the Big XII will lose pretty much all of its glamour, and may well end up on the outside looking in when that “four 16-team superconference” world comes into existence. (On the plus side, UH might finally get accepted into the Big XII.) As a longtime fan of a school that’s never going to be more than cannon fodder in this world, I’m not interested in the palace intrigue of it all. You have to be able to handle a lot of cognitive dissonance to be a college sports fan. The recent NCAA ruling over “name, image, likeness” rights makes things a little better for the athletes themselves, but this is never going to be an equitable world. You make your peace with it or you find some other thing to occupy your Saturdays in the fall and weekends in March. ESPN and Texas Monthly, which is warming up the death knell for the Big XII, have more.

The ultimate inducement to getting vaccinated

Winning college football games. I mean seriously, if that doesn’t do it then literally nothing will.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey calls it the “vaccination motivation” — in urging the league’s programs to receive the COVID-19 vaccination before the season kicks off in a little more than a month.

“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members and to our student-athletes: COVID-19 vaccines are widely available,” Sankey said to crank up SEC Media Days on Monday. “They’ve proven to be highly effective. And when people are fully vaccinated, we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’s spread and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience, and to a normal life.

“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination.”

Sankey, speaking on the first day of the four-day event and the first SEC Media Days in two years because of the pandemic, said six out of the SEC’s 14 football teams “have reached the 80 percent threshold in roster vaccination.”

“That number needs to grow, and grow rapidly,” Sankey said. “We have learned how to manage through a COVID environment, but we do not yet have control of a COVID environment, and that finds us preparing to return toward normal this fall, but we see realities around us.”

[…]

Sankey added, “The ‘forfeit’ word comes up at this point,” after the league last season left a cushion in December to allow for makeup games. That likely will not be the case this year. A&M is scheduled to kick off its season Sept. 4 against Kent State at Kyle Field, and Sankey said all early signs are the SEC’s season will not be pushed back a few weeks (and shortened to league-only contests) like it was in 2020.

“You hope not to have disruption, but hope is not a plan, goes the cliché,” Sankey said. “We (for now) still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year. What I’ve identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums, and you’re expected to play as scheduled. That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won’t be rescheduled.

“ … We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. Unless we’re going to do that, our teams are going to have to be full prepared to play their season as scheduled.”

I’ll get back to the SEC in a minute, but at least one conference is using the word “forfeit”.

The American Athletic Conference has had conversations in the past week that would require teams without enough healthy players due to COVID-19 to forfeit games this season.

“It’s not decided yet, but it’s likely,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said recently during an appearance on SportsTalk 790 AM.

Few FBS teams dealt with COVID-19 disruptions as much last season as Houston, which had eight games either canceled or postponed. UH officials were particularly upset with the short notice given by Baylor, which called off a game less than 24 hours before kickoff and the Cougars’ equipment truck already in Waco.

The eventual season opener against Tulane was delayed until Oct. 8, a delay of more than a month.

A similar measure to force teams unable to field enough healthy players to forfeit has also been discussed with the Big 12.

“The COVIDing out and the gamesmanship that went into that, make no mistake that occurred this last year,” Pezman said. “You’re going to end up forfeiting.”

Lots of teams played incomplete schedules last year, with many games being delayed or canceled because one team or the other didn’t have enough healthy players. If the idea this year is for things to go back to “normal”, then teams need to ensure they can meet minimum roster requirements. The best way they can do that is to make sure that they don’t have COVID outbreaks, and we all know what they best way to do that is. Stuff can still happen – the recent outbreak with the Yankees, where over 85% of their team and staff are vaxxed, is an example – but the odds are much better in your favor this way.

Obviously, the number of people in scope for this is small, but it just might spread outward a bit. Imagine if coaches forbade the fat cat donors from hobnobbing with the teams if they’re not vaxxed, for example. Whatever the case, every little bit helps. And hey, if the ol’ ball coach says get your shots, who’s gonna say no?

UPDATE: Not just college football.

The NFL has added an additional COVID-19 vaccination incentive for players, threatening forfeits and the loss of game checks if an outbreak among unvaccinated players causes an unresolvable disruption in the regular-season schedule.

Commissioner Roger Goodell informed clubs of the new policy Thursday in a memo. The league has encouraged vaccination for players but has not required it, per an agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Instead, the league has set up a series of incentives. As of Thursday, Goodell wrote, more than 75% of NFL players were at least partially vaccinated and more than half of the league’s teams have player vaccination rates above 80%.

Unvaccinated players will be subject to severe protocols during training camp and the regular season, including daily testing, mask-wearing and travel restrictions. Thursday’s memo made it clear that unvaccinated players could, in theory, be responsible for the losses of games and paychecks as well.

You can be free to make your own choices about the vaccine if you really insist, but that doesn’t mean you’re free from the consequences.

How the NFL handles domestic violence and sexual assault charges

Sith great inconsistency, is the short answer. Anyone interested in what may happen with Deshaun Watson should read this.

Ray McDonald was playing for the San Francisco 49ers in August 2014 when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his pregnant fiance.

Charges were never filed. He never missed a game.

Four months later, in December 2014, McDonald became a suspect in a sexual assault case. The 49ers cut him from the team, but the NFL did not take action.

The Chicago Bears signed McDonald three months later, in March 2015. The rape charges were dismissed in 2017 after the victim declined to testify.

In May 2015, McDonald was in trouble yet again. He was arrested after allegedly assaulting his ex-fiancee in California while she was holding their infant son. A grand jury declined to indict him on the domestic violence charge.

The Bears cut him from the team. The NFL has not taken action, and McDonald has not played since.

Cases such as McDonald’s illustrate the NFL’s inconsistent punishment system for players accused of sexual and domestic violence, experts in sports and violence culture say: As long as a player is good and making a team money, they will receive some modicum of protection.

The league took steps to improve its domestic and sexual violence education — and strengthen its punishment policy — after Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice in 2014 knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator in Atlantic City. Now, the league’s baseline is a six-game suspension for the first violent — or threat of violence — offense and a lifetime ban for the second. The player does not have to be charged or convicted of a crime to receive this punishment.

It is very difficult to track how many NFL players are accused of violent offenses and whether they faced punishment by their teams or the league. The NFL does not maintain a public database of its disciplinary actions.

However, using a USA Today database supplemented by Houston Chronicle reporting, the newspaper found nearly 80 instances in which players had been accused of, cited, arrested or charged with violent offenses since January 2015, after the NFL revised its policy.

Only 27 of the 68 players examined by the Chronicle received an NFL suspension, and often the punishments doled out were inconsistent. At least nine players from 2015 to present were repeatedly accused, arrested or charged with a violent crime, often before receiving any sanctions from the league.

About 32 percent of those nearly 80 instances resulted in punishment through the criminal justice system. In the instances they were not, cases are still ongoing, the players were acquitted or the charges were dropped. Some accusations were not reported to police or the alleged victims recanted their stories or declined to proceed.

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. The NFL has been bad at this for a long time (other sports leagues are not much better), but they’re at least more engaged with the issue now. It’s a complicated question, and how the leagues respond will need to continue to evolve. If you’re any kind of sports fan, you’ve had to deal with a lot of mixed feelings over this. It’s not going to get any easier.

Timeframe for Watson depositions

This is going to take awhile.

Deshaun Watson’s attorneys in September can begin deposing plaintiffs in the 22 sexual assault and harassment cases against the Texans quarterback, according to court documents.

State District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier on May 10 signed an agreed docket control order which maps out dates for various phases of the litigation. Watson cannot be deposed before Feb. 22.

[…]

The women can be deposed beginning Sept. 13, with up to six hours allotted for each plaintiff’s personal deposition. The Houston Chronicle typically does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

Watson himself can be deposed in late February and cannot exceed 48 hours of deposition, according to the docket order.

No settlement negotiations were underway earlier this month, when defense attorney Rusty Hardin released a statement claiming Buzbee had approached his team in attempts to discuss settlements. Buzbee denied that allegation, posting on Instagram that he had never approached Watson’s team to settle.

Hardin has said any potential settlement would need to be public.

See here and here for my previous updates. I haven’t posted on this in awhile, partly because we are now at the slow legal process point of the saga and partly because of other news. Sean Pendergast is more up to the minute on this stuff – see here, here, and here for his most recent updates. The discovery process in the lawsuit has begun, and that has the potential for some big revelations to occur, the kind of thing that one side or the other has been keeping quiet about. The depositions will likely tell us some new things as well. Settle in for the long haul, there probably won’t be much more to say for awhile.

One crime Texas isn’t so tuff on

And that’s sexual assault, in the category of crimes Deshaun Watson has been accused of.

As the Houston Police Department investigates at least one criminal complaint against Deshaun Watson, a review of the allegations made in civil court against the Texans quarterback show officials could be limited to pursuing misdemeanor charges for all but a few serious accusations.

More than half of the 23 women who sued Watson say he made sexual contact without their consent. In Texas, that’s a misdemeanor in criminal court, on par with burglary of a vehicle or property theft between $750 and $2,500.

Three plaintiffs allege that Watson either forced or coerced fellatio — a second degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

[…]

Texas lags behind some states in punishing offenders in cases of sexual assault that don’t rise to the level of rape. The Houston Chronicle analyzed a database of sex crimes laws across all 50 states compiled by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It found that unwanted sexual contact described in more than half the lawsuits — where there is no penetration involved — is a felony in a dozen of them, but not in Texas.

Experts say classifying what Watson is accused of doing as misdemeanor indecent assault minimizes the seriousness of such crimes and discourages victims from coming forward.

“The gravity of indecent assault or indecent acts can vary so substantially,” said Geoffrey S. Corn, South Texas College of Law Houston’s Gary A. Kuiper Distinguished Professor of National Security Law. “Compelling someone to touch your genitals or touching them with your genitals is a much more aggravated crime” than grabbing someone’s buttocks.

[…]

Other states impose harsher punishments than Texas. In Utah, for example, forcible sex abuse — touching a person’s anus, buttock, pubic area or any part of someone’s genitals, or touches a female’s breasts — is a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

Alaska classifies non-consensual sexual contact as sexual assault in the second degree, a class B felony. It’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

But in Texas, the same crime is only a class A misdemeanor. At most, a person found guilty of indecent assault would receive a year in jail and be fined $4,000.

Corn said each offense could be punished separately. But still, “treating it conclusively as a misdemeanor is troubling,” Corn said.

I should note that the penalties cited in this story are the maximum for the given crime. Most likely, an offender who was convicted or accepted a plea for them would get a lesser sentence. I’ve learned enough over the years to be very skeptical of aggressive punishments for most crimes, as they seldom have any positive effect on the frequency with which those crimes are committed, and of course because of the great racial disparities in our criminal justice system. That doesn’t mean Texas has the right idea with its punishments for these non-rape sex crimes. If anything, it tells us more about the state’s attitude towards this kind of crime. (*) There are a lot of reasons why people (mostly but not entirely women) are reluctant to come forward when they are victimized in this fashion, but the prospect of seeing their attacker get off with a light sentence even in the best case scenario is surely one of them.

(*) – Compare, for example, to the multi-year prison sentence Crystal Mason got for voting when she wasn’t eligible. If her conviction is upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals, she would serve more time than Deshaun Watson would if he were convicted under most of the charges levied against him.

First Watson defense briefs filed

Just keeping an eye on developments.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s legal team on Monday filed a general denial of the 22 allegations of sexual assault and harassment, including their own claims that some of the massage therapists asked the football player if they could give him additional sessions.

The denial comes days after Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin successfully pushed for the names of the women to become public, which he said would allow him to investigate and respond to the lawsuits. The Houston Chronicle does not typically identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

[…]

Hardin, in his response to the lawsuits, said that several of the women bragged about massaging Watson or praised him after their sessions. Others offered to work with him again, and one said she was attracted to Watson and wanted to go on dates with him, the attorney said.

Several of the women failed to disclose they had more sessions than what they said in their lawsuits, and some of them told others that they wanted to get money out of Watson, according to the filing.

Many of the women have also deleted or altered their social media accounts, where some evidence might have been found, Hardin said.

See here for the previous update. As was the case with the lawsuits themselves, do not rush to judgment about anything in the defense filings. More information will come out as the plaintiffs (and perhaps the prosecution) gets a chance to respond. Part of the job of the defense is to cast doubt on the accusers, and that is going to feel weird and perhaps aggressive. It’s not going to get any less uncomfortable from here. Sean Pendergast, who quotes from the defense brief and breaks down the different arguments being made, has more.

Watson cases consolidated

All in one court now, for your convenience.

All 22 sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have been consolidated to one Harris County court.

Both legal parties agreed on Friday that State District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier should handle the cases until the time of trial. Any trial would then be returned to the originally assigned courtroom.

Court documents show that the cases have been consolidated. Collier said Friday she expected a panel of judges to meet and officially OK the agreement at an unspecified date.

The decision is primarily a matter of convenience for the judges, Watson’s attorneys and the lawyers of the 22 women bringing litigation. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, and Tony Buzbee, representing the women, said that it would be easier to exchange evidence in one courtroom instead of several.

See here for the previous update. I don’t need to be a lawyer to know that this is a normal thing, consolidating lawsuits like this. As a blogger who follows various legal cases, I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to tell from a bland news story whether a particular court action has to do with this lawsuit or that one or the other one over there. I appreciate the simplification.

In semi-related Watson news, don’t do this.

Football writer Aaron Wilson is no longer with the Houston Chronicle after he went on a Boston sports radio show and compared the women suing Deshaun Watson to terrorists, multiple sources told Defector on Friday.

The radio appearance was on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI on March 19. During the appearance, Wilson called the lawsuits “a money grab” and “ambulance chasing.” At one point during the conversation, when talking about the Watson case, he said, “In his case, you know, it’s kind of you don’t negotiate with terrorists. People are demanding money, they’re asking for money. It kept escalating, it kept going up and up and up. You’re talking about more and more funds, I’m not going to say how much it got to, but my understanding is, you know, that there was an admission that, it was, you know, something, you know just that this was, you know, just a money grab.”

Wilson has since issued an apology, but yeah. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, come back from that. We all have our thoughts and often conflicting feelings about the accusations against Deshaun Watson, but outside of the accusers and Watson themselves, no one knows anything. We should take the accusers seriously, and we should give Watson the chance to defend himself, and we should not jump to dumb and ill-informed conclusions.

UPDATE: The remaining cases against Watson have been refiled to include the plaintiffs’ names, minus one who chose to drop out.

NCAA warns Texas about anti-transgender bills

It’s not just the voter suppression bills that will do great harm to the state of Texas and its people if the Republicans ram them through.

Amid all the talk of boycotts and corporate criticism of election bills going through the Texas Legislature, major resistance is also shaping up to another top priority of the Republican state lawmakers.

With the Texas Senate cued up to debate a bill this week that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ interscholastic sports, the NCAA recently issued a stern warning that they are watching the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” NCAA officials said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion.”

The NCAA policies allow transgender athletes to participate without limitations.

It is very similar to the statements the NCAA put out just before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a transgender bill similar to the one Texas is considering and one that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from while warning of an unwinnable showdown with the college sports association.

SB 29, sponsored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry would ban a student from participating in a sport “opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth…”

[…]

Critics of the Texas legislation and others like it say it’s all part of a wave of bills in statehouses around the nation that are not only discriminatory against transgender children, but dangerous to them.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and the very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Council, a national group that fights violence, discrimination and fear of LGBTQ people. “Like the bathroom bills and the bills targeting marriage equality before them, these bills are nothing more than a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists spreading fear and misinformation about transgender people in order to score cheap political points.”

[…]

The NCAA has been a notable voice against anti-transgender legislation. In 2017, it pulled major sporting events out of North Carolina because of that state passing a version of the bathroom bill. Eventually, North Carolina lawmakers amended the legislation to end the boycott.

The NCAA has major financial commitments in Texas. The men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled to be in Houston in 2023 and then in San Antonio again in 2025. Dallas hosts the women’s Final Four in 2023, and the College Football Championship is set for Houston in 2024.

In 2017, studies suggested Texas could lose nearly $250 million if the Final Four was taken away then. With three Final Fours and the football championships, Texas would be looking at more than $1 billion in economic impact.

“The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes,” the NCAA said in its recent statement to Hearst Newspapers about Texas’ transgender legislation.

That was an early story. The Trib filed a little later, and the NCAA was a bit more specific this time.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport,” the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association’s top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

See here for the preview. I for one would very much like these sporting events to be in our cities in those years. But if the Lege follows through on these terrible, harmful bills then the NCAA absolutely should follow through and pull them all until such time as these bills are repealed.

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it’s unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This is 2019.”

I would have thought we’d learned this lesson in 2017, but apparently some lessons need to be learned the hard way. We still have a chance to escape that fate, but if we don’t it’s 100% on the Republicans. I hope Dade Phelan meant what he said, but it remains to be seen. To learn more and hear from the advocates of the transgender children who are being targeted by our Legislature, you can follow Rebecca Marques, Jessica Shortall, Equality Texas (the woman you see testifying in that video is my friend Mandy Giles), Kimberly Shappley, and Amber Briggle on Twitter. USA Today, the Texas Signal, and Mother Jones have more.

Watson seeks names of accusers

This was going to happen sooner or later.

Attorneys for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on Thursday urged several state courts to require the disclosure of the names of the women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment — a move one legal expert called an intimidation tactic.

In a new court filing, defense lawyer Rusty Hardin lambasted the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, for holding a “trial by press conference” and making it difficult for Watson to respond to the 22 separate accusations without knowing who filed suit. The anonymous women, most of whom are massage therapists, allege that Watson assaulted or harassed them during sessions in 2020 and 2021 in Texas, California, Georgia or Arizona.

Hardin filed multiple requests Thursday but said he intended to file them in all of the women’s cases.

“Through the spectacle of the last few weeks, Mr. Watson has been unable to responsibly defend himself in the face of overwhelming national media coverage,” Hardin said in the filing for a special exception to the original petition. “Mr. Watson’s counsel cannot in good conscience publicly respond to the specific allegations being made because any response would be based on dangerous speculation about the identity of the accusers.”

[…]

The women are all officially listed as “Jane Doe” in court documents. Two Texas Rules of Civil Procedure prevent plaintiffs from filing civil claims using pseudonyms, Hardin said. One rule requires plaintiffs to state their name if it is known, and the other requires giving the defense fair notice of the claims involved. An exception is made for minors in sex assault cases.

A judge could potentially permit the defense to learn the identities of the plaintiffs but order the names not be released publicly, University of Houston law professor Meredith Duncan said.

Tahira Khan Merritt, a Texas attorney who litigates civil sex assault cases in state and federal court, said judges have discretion as to whether they would allow the case to proceed under a pseudonym. Prohibiting a pseudonym would merely be an intimidation tactic so early in a case, she said.

“The use of pseudonyms is very common across the United States,” Merritt said. “The only reason they would push it is to shut the victim up and discourage others from coming forward.”

Buzbee previously told Hardin he could provide the names if they used a confidentiality order, Hardin said.

As we know, two accusers have come forward publicly, but the others have not. At the court hearings today, they got some of what they wanted.

Two Harris County judges ordered in separate hearings on Friday that Tony Buzbee refile sexual assault and harassment cases against quarterback Deshaun Watson with the names of the accusers made public.

State district Judge Dedra Davis granted defense attorney Rusty Hardin’s request and asked that Buzbee refile a case in her court and disclose one of the women’s names within two days. Buzbee had suggested a private disclosure to Hardin for the women, who were initially all listed as “Jane Doe.”

A second judge, Rabeea Sultan Collier, made the same determination in the cases of three other women late Friday morning. Ten other women agreed to allow Buzbee to release their identities, and the woman in Davis’ court was “emboldened” and told Buzbee not to fight the judge’s decision, he said.

[…]

Hardin told Collier that making names public, while a concern for women’s safety, is also necessary for the defense. Since Solis and one other woman identified themselves during a Tuesday news conference, his team has received information about them from outside parties, he said.

Davis agreed that both parties needed fair treatment and that the women needed to be protected. But she agreed with Hardin that his use of publicizing the case in the media hurt his arguments.

“Everything’s been thrown into the spotlight,” she said. “I understand that you said in private you will allow the accuser to be known but it’s been very public.”

Collier heard arguments about 12 cases, nine of which were moot since the women agreed to have their names released. Solis’ case, the first to be filed, landed in her court, which means it is customary that any consolidation of cases would also move to her courtroom.

Hardin and Buzbee also agreed on a consolidation agreement Friday. All 22 women’s cases will proceed in Collier’s court before trial, but would move back to their original courts for a trial.

OK then. There are still hearings to be had for the remaining women, so we’ll see how that goes. We also now have a preview of the defense.

Deshaun Watson’s attorneys on Friday issued their first extensive defense of the star quarterback, alleging that every sexual act he partook in was consensual.

Rusty Hardin and a team of four women spoke from the Hilton Americas hotel downtown, issuing statements of support to the media and apologizing for remaining quiet as Watson was hit with 22 separate lawsuits of sexual assault and harassment. But the veteran, high-profile defense attorney also prodded reporters to look more closely at the behavior of the women’s lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who he said withheld the names of the anonymous plaintiffs until it was vital that they be made public through an emergency hearing.

[…]

Watson has been receiving two to three massages a week for four years, totaling sometimes to 150 a year, Hardin said. Most of the allegations seem to stem from 2020 and 2021 because the massage industry has changed over the course of the pandemic with the closure of spas and tendency of massage therapists to turn to Instagram for marketing, he said.

Watson, 25, largely operates from Instagram, and he doesn’t have a large team of massage therapists at his disposal through the Texans as many would believe, his attorneys said.

The female attorneys at the press conference clarified that they were not the only people from Hardin’s office on the lawsuits and did not appear to speak for appearances. They were only there because they wholeheartedly believe Watson, they said.

Attorney Leticia Quinones, a sexual assault survivor herself, said that she and other women on the team personally met with Watson and were convinced of his innocence. She urged the public to look at Watson’s “credit history” of good deeds in the community and success in overcoming a rough childhood.

She said Watson has a target on his back after signing a $160 million contract. He’s separately trying to leave the Texans.

“This 25 year old man was thrown in the depths of something he wasn’t accustomed to – money fam and stardom,” Quinones said.

Quinones added however, “I don’t discount anything that a young woman believes happens to her,” and after taking questions, Hardin agreed that “good guys” are capable of doing bad things.

Hardin said he simply wants to move the needle back to the middle in terms of public discourse following weeks of attacks from Buzbee’s team.

I’ve tried not to jump to any conclusions as the plaintiffs have made their accusations, and I’m going to continue to try to stay neutral as the defense begins to speak. There is sure to be a lot more said on all of this. Sean Pendergast has more.

A Watson accuser has come forward

Listen to what she says.

The first of 22 women to file a sexual assault and harassment lawsuit against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson spoke out on Tuesday, coming forward publicly in response to the defense team’s questions over the accusers’ identities.

At a news conference in attorney Tony Buzbee’s downtown high rise office, licensed massage therapist Ashley Solis shared her experience as a woman who is now struggling in her profession in the aftermath of the alleged assault. Buzbee then distributed pages of documents showing messages that he claims Watson sent to some of his clients, and his associates named a second woman who filed one of the lawsuits.

Solis said she now has difficulty touching patients without shaking, and on several occasions she has had to end sessions early.

“We were all deceived into thinking that Deshaun Watson was a great guy,” Solis said. “Unfortunately we know that good guys can do terrible things.”

Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, released a lengthy statement containing a series of email exchanges allegedly between Buzbee’s camp and a Watson representative, claiming Buzbee sought $100,000 to settle Solis’ allegations just one month before he filed her suit.

“Mr. Buzbee himself repeatedly claimed that the litigation he filed on behalf of other Jane Does ‘isn’t about money,’” Hardin said. “In fact, according to the documentation below, Mr. Buzbee sought $100,000 in hush money.”

Separately, he said Buzbee has not turned over any of the documents he shared with the media. Hardin has previously criticized Buzbee for failing to give him the names of his clients, which he says prevents him from investigating the claims.

See here for the previous update. I would much rather live in a world where no one ever had any reason to accuse Deshaun Watson – or anyone else, for that matter – of any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior. One is allowed to have complicated feelings about all of this. I’m still wrestling with a lot of contradictory emotions and reactions, and I’m a pretty lukewarm Texans fan. While Deshaun Watson and Rusty Hardin have the right to defend his actions and his reputation, Ashley Solis deserves to be treated with respect. She’s already being attacked by trolls, which is a great illustration of why very few women make this kind of accusation lightly, and why most of these plaintiffs have remained nameless so far. Watson and Hardin will get their chance to question her account and her veracity, and we will get to make up our own minds about it, hopefully once all the evidence is in. Let’s all please try not to be jackasses about this.

I mention Watson and Hardin defending Watson’s reputation because that is very much at issue here.

Nike has suspended its business relationship with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil lawsuits that allege sexual assault and harassment.

“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson,” Nike said in a statement e-mailed to the Chronicle. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Beats by Dre also has terminated its relationship with Deshaun Watson, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly. Watson had a business relationship with Beats by Dre since he was drafted in the first round in 2017 out of Clemson.

Also, Reliant Energy has dropped its relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador is over.

“Reliant is aware of pending civil lawsuits and a criminal investigation involving Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans quarterback,” Reliant said in an email. “Our relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador was scheduled to end this spring prior to these allegations, and there are no plans for future engagements or contracts with him. We take accusations of this nature very seriously. With respect to the legal process, we do not have any further comment on this matter.”

Not hard to understand why these companies took this action. The stakes overall are a lot higher than endorsement deals, but this is a significant development. Sean Pendergast has more.

Why lawsuits?

If you’ve wondered why the women who have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual harassment and assault have filed lawsuits against him instead of police reports, this Chron story offers some reasons.

The 22 women suing Deshaun Watson for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing them have been criticized for not first taking their allegations to police.

But experts say a civil suit is often a sexual assault victim’s best shot at justice.

“In a civil case, you can expect a broader range of accountability,” said Elizabeth Boyce, general counsel and director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “You might settle before trial and that might include a public acknowledgment and apology.”

[…]

But experts said there are myriad reasons why a victim would choose to file a case in civil court instead of a criminal complaint — including compensation to pay for any emotional and medical care needed after an assault.

“Victims of sexual assault had something stolen from them,” said Noblet Davidson, founder and clinical director of enCOURAGE Trauma Center in Houston. “They need to be compensated. If you get in a car accident, you get compensated.”

The fear of being outed, for example, can deter a victim from filing a police report, Boyce said — especially when the alleged perpetrator is famous.

“Confidentiality and privacy is always at the heart of these cases,” Boyce said. “Honestly, it’s a fear of any victim of sexual assault that this is going to result in some sort of public condemnation or harassment.”

The nation has seen it play out over and over again, Boyce said.

When California professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress, alleging that now-Supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, she received death threats. She and her family had to move multiple times and had to pay for a private security detail.

[…]

For some victims, taking their assault to police can seem hopeless.

Not only are they retraumatized each time they have to describe their assault, Boyce said, but it can also seem as if they are not in control of the outcomes.

“In criminal cases, the state doesn’t represent the victims, they represent the state and they control every aspect of the case,” Boyce said. “And so often (the cases) are refused for prosecution for a variety of reasons — if they think they can’t win or they think there’s too much political pressure.”

The criminal investigation process also is intrusive and time-consuming, with court hearings, follow-ups with police and medical appointments, said Olivia Rivers, executive director of the Houston-area advocacy nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Officers may show up at the victim’s house or workplace. Family and friends — who the victim may not want to tell about the assault — may be interviewed to corroborate the report.

“A sexual assault exam can take hours,” she said. “How do you explain to your family why you were at a hospital for that long? Or how do you explain to your employer why you had to miss so much work for court?”

Additionally, the burden of proof also is lower in a civil court than in a criminal prosecution. Civilly, the victims only have to show a preponderance of evidence, but in criminal cases, authorities have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault happened.

Therefore, it can easier for victims to get some form of justice in a civil court, whether it be a public apology or a monetary award for pain and suffering — especially when there isn’t enough physical evidence to criminally convict a perpetrator.

“Sexual violence … isn’t taken seriously by society,” Rivers said. “This about having their voices heard.”

Sometimes, victims might seek both criminal prosecution and civil damages.

At least one alleged victim has done exactly that, and others may follow. In the meantime, lawsuit #22 is on the books. We won’t know how successful this approach is until we have some resolutions in these cases, but the reason why the lawsuits were filed should be clear.

HPD now investigating Deshaun Watson

Someone filed a report.

Already facing a rash of civil lawsuits, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson now has been named in a criminal complaint, according to the Houston Police Department.

HPD confirmed it “is now conducting an investigation and will not comment further during the investigative process.”

The probe comes as Texans quarterback faces 21 civil lawsuits from massage therapists or wellness professionals who allege he sexually assaulted or harassed them at various points during massage sessions in 2020 or 2021.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the claims

Hardin, who has publicly chastised Watson’s accusers for not disclosing their names in the litigation, said his team will cooperate with police.

“We welcome this long overdue development,” Hardin said of the investigation. “Now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser.”

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the alleged victims in the civil lawsuits, pushed back against the criticism of the alleged victims, saying they are courageous in coming forward.

“It takes great strength to do what these women are doing,” he said. “We are not only dealing with the future of a star quarterback, we are dealing with the physical health, mental health, safety, and well-being of courageous people who had the fortitude to step forward, although powerless, against the powerful.”

On Friday, Buzbee said that he was aware of the criminal complaint filed Friday morning.

“I will also confirm that other criminal complaints will follow, as previously indicated, in Houston and in other jurisdictions and with other agencies,” he said.

That’s more direct than Buzbee’s previous word salad on the topic. It seems likely we were always headed in this direction, but the story so far has proceeded in an unusual manner, so who really knows. Nothing to do but wait and see what if anything comes of this, and how many other reports get filed.

Will there be any criminal complaints filed against Deshaun Watson?

Maybe? It all depends on what Tony Buzbee means, and Lord only knows about that.

In his latest Instagram post about the sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Tuesday that he plans to take evidence of the assaults to an investigating agency outside the Houston Police Department.

Buzbee has filed 19 lawsuits on behalf of women who said Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021.

In Buzbee’s post, published around 9 p.m., the attorney said he was initially reluctant to provide information about the alleged crimes, citing his 2019 mayoral bid in which he called for then-Police Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation.

Acevedo recently took a job as police chief of the Miami Police Department. Buzbee, however, said he has since discovered that Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has a son “who is on of (sic) the exclusive Command Staff of HPD.”

“I am not saying in any way that Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Mr. Hardin, has a son who has a position that would compromise HPD and its investigation,” Buzbee wrote. “I support his service, along with all Houston police officers—I think the rank and file know that. But, I am saying that me and my clients will go elsewhere to provide our evidence to investigative authorities. Stand by.”

Buzbee said his legal team has been “roundly criticized” for not filing formal complaints with the Houston Police Department. He said the team has “provided info to other organizations” but did not elaborate in the post.

What “other organizations” might those be? Who knows. I’m not going to try to interpret the musings from Tony Buzbee’s galaxy brain. He’s got a strategy and he’s clearly got evidence to back him up – see Sean Pendergast’s analysis of the five most damaging allegations against Watson for an appraisal of that – and he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. At some point, we’ll see what the endgame that Buzbee has in mind is. In the meantime, the lawsuit count is up to 21. And as of Wednesday, we now have this.

In a concerted attempt to paint Watson in a more favorable light, Watson’s defense released statements Wednesday from 18 women who “are deeply troubled by the accusations” made against Watson and who believe the allegations are “wholly inconsistent with their experiences with him and who they believe him to be.” All 18 women who released statements Wednesday supporting Watson made their identities public.

Watson’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin said these women who have spoken out on Watson’s behalf have collectively worked with the Texans star “more than 130 times over the past five years.”

“These statements show the other side to this story that has been so lacking in the flurry of anonymous complaints filed by opposing counsel,” Hardin said. It’s the most vigorous attempt from Hardin yet to defend Watson, and comes after Hardin claimed last week that at least one of Watson’s accusers had privately attempted to blackmail the quarterback into paying her to keep quiet about what happened during their massage appointment.

Several therapists are quoted, and you can go read what they have to say if you wish. I get where this is coming from – whatever ultimately happens with the allegations and lawsuits, Watson’s reputation has taken a big hit, so some of this is an attempt to mitigate that damage – but the old-school “well, he never did anything untoward around me” defense is, at best, not on point. I would hope by now that we have internalized the idea that a person can behave differently in different contexts and around different people. It’s dangerously close to victim-blaming, and that’s a road we should want to avoid.

Another Watson lawsuit update

The count is now nineteen.

Nineteen women have now accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault after three massage therapists filed separate lawsuits Sunday night.

The latest accusations involve women who said Watson assaulted and harassed them during massage sessions at various points in 2020. Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the allegations. Well-known Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, a former mayoral candidate, is representing the women.

In the latest lawsuit, Buzbee claimed Watson is deleting Instagram messages and contacting some of the women in an attempt to settle. Hardin issued a statement Monday afternoon in response to the allegation.

“Like a lot of people, Deshaun regularly deletes past Instagram messages,” Hardin said. “That said, he has not deleted any messages since March 15th, the day before the first lawsuit was filed. We categorically deny that he has reached out directly to his accusers in an attempt to settle these cases.”

“Opposing counsel’s continued statements that these cases aren’t about money do not square with the facts in at least two of these cases. It is incredibly irresponsible to continue to make these types of false allegations in this avalanche of anonymous lawsuits, particularly while we are still trying to find out who the accusers are. We will address these issues, and others raised in these cases, in our formal response to the court in the coming weeks.”

[…]

“Plaintiffs have not brought these cases for money or attention; instead Plaintiffs seek a change in behavior with regard to Watson, and a change of culture in the NFL,” the 19th lawsuit reads.

See here and here for the previous updates, and click on the story link to see a copy of the latest lawsuit. Deleting material evidence (if indeed Watson has done so) could be a problem, which I presume is why Rusty Hardin is out there denying it. I will be very interested to see what their eventual formal response looks like. Sean Pendergast has more.

The Buzbee blitz

It’s been working.

On a Tuesday night, Tony Buzbee announced on Instagram that his client was suing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

With a handful of social media posts, the crackerjack trial lawyer teased more sexual assault allegations to come. By the next Tuesday, 16 women had accused the Pro Bowl player of similar forms of misconduct in 16 separate lawsuits.

Known as a bulldog in the courtroom and a grandiose presence on the local news, the former mayoral candidate retained a firm grasp of the narrative. At first only speaking through social media, he dropped each lawsuit individually, and each accusation dominated the daily news crawl.

Buzbee is known as one of Houston’s most media-savvy attorneys, and the Watson case has been no exception. He has exploited news outlets’ desire for a buzz-inducing story in order to snowball his cases through the legal system, lawyers and analysts say, coinciding with a fragile Texans sports landscape that has kept Watson front-and-center during his unsuccessful attempts to leave the team.

The reality is that Buzbee has earned his reputation by creative and strong-arm tactics to pressure civil defendants into settling, said Sean Buckley, a Houston civil and criminal defense attorney. The Watson cases are prime examples of that, he added.

“The intense and ongoing publicity surrounding the Deshaun Watson allegations appears clearly calculated to pressure Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg into filing criminal charges against Watson,” Buckley said. “To that end, a formal investigation or prosecution of Deshaun Watson would impair Watson’s ability to defend against Buzbee’s civil lawsuits.”

I’m not going to make any jokes about Buzbee’s Mayoral campaign or his weird life choices because this is a serious topic and I don’t want to make light of the charges that have been levied against Deshaun Watson. There may be room for that when this is farther along, but not now. I’m also not going to comment any further on a story that is a mostly glowing profile of Tony Buzbee because there are no circumstances under which he needs or deserves that from me.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how Watson’s defense might take shape, here’s one item of interest.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was the subject of a $30,000 blackmail attempt from one of the 16 massage therapists alleging sexual assault and harassment in civil litigation, according to a sworn affidavit released by his Houston-based attorney, Rusty Hardin.

Bryan Burney, the marketing manager for Watson, submitted in the affidavit that “Jane Doe” believed to be the third plaintiff out of of 16 civil lawsuits filed by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, stated that she wanted $30,000 for her ‘indefinite silence’ regarding an alleged Dec. 28, 2020 encounter with Watson. The civil suit alleges that Watson “coerced and intimidated” her to perform oral sex on him at a Houston office building.

“I asked her what she would be silent about and whether anything had happened with Deshaun against her will,” Burney stated. “She confirmed that everything that occurred was consensual during her encounter with Deshaun. I asked Ms. Doe why Deshaun should pay for silence regarding something that was consensual — whatever it was. She said that it was a matter that both she and Deshaun would wish to keep secret and that she would need to be paid for her ‘silence.’”

Burney stated that after that conversation, he received a call from a man saying he was the alleged victim’s business manager, that the encounter would be “embarrassing” if Watson didn’t pay what was demanded.

“I told this individual that his demand to be paid for not revealing a consensual interaction between two adults was extortion,” Burney said. “He responded, “It’s not extortion, it’s blackmail. I informed this individual that Deshaun would not be paying the $30,000 requested.

You can read the rest, including the full sworn statement. The idea is that if one accusation is (arguably) false, then maybe the others are as well. We’re a long way away from the finish line in this story, so let’s just leave this here and see what else may develop. And yes, the accuser count is now up to sixteen.

Deshaun Watson lawsuit count now at 13

There may still be more.

Six additional women have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Well-known Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, also a former mayoral candidate, has now filed 13 pieces of litigation against the Pro-Bowl football player. Most of the accusers are massage therapists who allege Watson harassed them and exposed himself during sessions.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the allegations. Watson is simultaneously attempting to leave the Texans but remains in a standoff with the team after formally requesting a trade in January.

One of the latest lawsuits involves a licensed massage therapist who said she gave Watson a massage in Atlanta, Georgia in March 2021. Watson exposed himself and touched her with his penis, she claims in the suit.

That’s March 2021, as in this very month. The flood of lawsuits began last week, and per The Athletic Tony Buzbee has said he “planned to file at least 12 cases against Watson but had met with 10 additional women about filing similar complaints”, so we’re not done yet. And as Stephanie Stradley reminds us, the processes involved – both the judicial system (civil and criminal) and the NFL’s own investigation – will take time, longer than any of us would like it to take. So try to be patient, it’s going to be awhile before we get any outside review of these awful, horrible accusations.

UPDATE: Up to fourteen now.

The accusations against Deshaun Watson keep piling up

Damn.

Four more women have accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault.

The new lawsuits, all filed Thursday and made publicly available Friday morning, mean seven women total have alleged Watson assaulted or harassed them. All of them are massage therapists, work at spas or specialize in body conditioning and wellness. Many of them are single mothers.

Each of the allegations center around separate occasions in 2020, mostly involving Watson reaching out to the women via social media and asking for massage sessions, according to the litigation. In each suit, the women describe a situation in which Watson is almost completely in control, dictating their work and refusing to listen when he made them uncomfortable.

[…]

Watson has not commented on the claims since Tuesday, when he categorically denied disrespecting any woman and said he looked forward to clearing his name. He is being represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, who has worked with other prominent Houston athletes such as former Astros pitcher Roger Clemens.

His agent, David Mulugheta, commented about the cases Friday on Twitter.

“Sexual assault is real. Victims should be heard, offenders prosecuted,” he said. “Individuals fabricate stories in pursuit of financial gain often. Their victims should be heard, and those offenders also prosecuted. I simply hope we keep this same energy with the truth.”

All of the women’s suits have been brought by Tony Buzbee, another well-known attorney and a former mayoral candidate.

See here for the background. As before, the story contains graphic details that I’d rather not reproduce here – go read the story for the rest, but be prepared, it’s quite ugly. There are more lawsuits coming, too. I don’t know what to think right now. The allegations are horrible, but Watson does have the right and the opportunity to address them and defend himself. Maybe one or more of these cases will end up with a verdict or a settlement, and maybe none of them will. At some point, we all have to make up our minds. I would much rather live in a world where none of this happened, but I don’t get to make that choice. The Press has more.

Lawsuit filed against Deshaun Watson

This is super ugly.

A licensed massage therapist has accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault.

Prominent lawyer Tony Buzbee, a former Houston mayoral candidate, filed the lawsuit late Tuesday. He first shared brief information in a post on Instagram, saying the litigation was “about dignity and stopping behavior that should be stopped.”

The massage therapist, identified as Jane Doe, said she had never met Watson before or dealt with any members of the Texans organization. She received a direct message from the Pro Bowl quarterback on Instagram on March 28, 2020, she said.

[…]

Watson responded to the claims, in which the masseuse alleges Watson touched her inappropriately during a massage session at her home in March 2020.

“As a result of a social media post by a publicity-seeking plaintiff’s lawyer, I recently became aware of a lawsuit that has apparently been filed against me,” Watson said in his response. “I have not yet seen the complaint, but I know this: I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect. The plaintiff’s lawyer claims that this isn’t about money, but before filing suit he made a baseless six-figure settlement demand, which I quickly rejected.”

The statement went on to say that “this isn’t about money for me — it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.”

Prominent Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin is representing Watson in the lawsuit, he confirmed. Hardin, who has represented other athletes such as Roger Clemens, was not available for comment Wednesday.

The Texans on Wednesday morning issued a separate statement addressing the allegations.

“We became aware of a civil lawsuit involving Deshaun Watson through a social media post last night,” the statement reads. “This is the first time we heard of the matter, and we hope to learn more soon. We take accusations of this nature that involve anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously. We will await further information before making any additional statements on this incident.”

An NFL spokesman said “We are aware of the suit, but will decline further comment at this time.”

I skipped the details, in which the massage therapist alleges that she was sexually assaulted by Watson. You can read it in the story and in the lawsuit, which is embedded in the story. Watson’s statement is here. There are some claims about Instagram DMs and text messages that should be objectively verifiable. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what happens. Sean Pendergast has more.

UPDATE: Now there are two accusers. This is getting worse.