Any general manager who trades for Deshaun Watson now would be reckless and foolish, grossly uncaring about his team’s fans, and completely oblivious to the reasonable expectations of modern society. Watson is facing at least 10 lawsuits regarding his conduct with massage therapists, with allegations ranging from inappropriate conduct to sexual assault. This does not guarantee he did these things. It does not mean his career is over. But it should absolutely put every other conversation about Watson on pause.
Anybody discussing this must float somewhere between the “innocent” and “guilty” in “innocent until proven guilty.” You can understand why the Texans and NFL are in the fact-gathering, let’s see-what-happens phase. But trading for Watson at what his perceived market value was two weeks ago would be a public statement that Watson is innocent and will remain innocent, and that the voices of these women do not even deserve to be heard.
If you trade three first-round picks for a quarterback who will earn more than $30 million a year, you are telling the world, “This is our guy. This is the face of our franchise.” Watson’s play justifies that, but this is no longer just about his play—or even primarily about his play. His character, which was considered unimpeachable to this point, is now in doubt.
The Deshaun Watson that we thought we knew probably does not exist. We all need to commit to that reality and act accordingly. This includes the media, which has largely (though not entirely) tiptoed around the allegations. I suspect it is in part because Watson has spoken up about social justice issues, and he has fought to get away from a dysfunctional franchise, two causes that have endeared him to many in sports media. I don’t think people are giving him a pass for the assault allegations, but if you think most people in the media will go after him as hard and fast as we would go after, say, Curt Schilling, if he faced these kinds of allegations, you are fooling yourself.
I admired Watson until these allegations surfaced. I agreed with most of his public stances. None of that is relevant now. Are the suits that have been filed so far proof in a court of law? No. We don’t even know if these allegations will reach a court of law. But they are so widespread that even the most imaginative mind would have a hard time seeing Watson as a victim here.
And this brings us back to the general managers who have been circling the Texans for two months, hoping to swipe the franchise quarterback. Running a team is largely about risk management. The Chiefs did not believe in Tyreek Hill’s character coming out of the draft as much as they believed it was worth a fifth-round pick to acquire a player with his talent despite his having pleaded guilty to domestic assault. Last fall, the Buccaneers did not believe in Antonio Brown’s character as much as they believed he was worth bringing in to help a struggling offense despite his history of problematic behavior, specifically toward women.
Trading for Watson would require a much larger commitment of resources. It would be an enormous wager that there is very little to see here. Anybody willing to make that bet is flashing a giant middle finger at anybody who has survived sexual violence.
The Texans are in a different situation. They already have Watson under contract. He is an employee. For any other team, adding Watson is a comment on the allegations, but the Texans are not adding Watson. They are keeping him. Having him on the roster is the status quo. The Texans are the only team that can employ Watson and credibly claim to be letting the legal process play out.
The only football entity that will have to act, at some point, is the NFL. The league will probably have to make some difficult choices. Early in his tenure as commissioner, Roger Goodell made a big show of disciplining players for allegations that did not lead to convictions or even charges in the court system. But more recently he has backed off, and the league has struggled to figure out what to do with cases like this. Ray Rice, remember, avoided trial and was accepted into a diversionary program, and Goodell suspended him for two games anyway. Once the video emerged of Rice punching his fiancée, it became clear that the suspension was too light, and Goodell tried to change his answers to the test.
There is no simple equation for these cases. Whatever the NFL does with Watson, it will probably be controversial. Predicting the punishment is tricky, too; Hill and Brown both looked like they might be unemployable at one point. They each played in Super Bowl LV.
For teams that were considering acquiring the quarterback, though, there is a very simple question: Do you want to put your franchise in Watson’s hands right now?