We discussed the Week 7 on-field developments in the Sunday FreakOut and on The MMQB Podcast. Albert Breer wrote about the Bengals’ rise in his MMQB column, while Conor Orr took a look at what may be a lean year for a Chiefs team that had been near-perfect the past two seasons.
But with the trade deadline one week away, the topic that is being talked about more than any other around the NFL and in the media is whether Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil suits and 10 criminal complaints by women alleging sexual harassment or misconduct during massage appointments, will be traded. (Watson has denied any wrongdoing.) Sports Illustrated has reported extensively on the allegations against Watson since March, and in today’s column, we are going to focus on the context and information that has largely been left out of the conversation about Watson’s football future.
1. The NFL has the authority to place Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list without criminal charges. On Sunday, NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported that he has “not heard” that Watson is going to be placed on the exempt list, the NFL’s version of paid leave for individuals being investigated under the personal conduct policy. Before the misconduct allegations against Watson were made public in March, he had already made clear he no longer wanted to play for the Texans, which has meant the NFL has been able to get by without making a decision on Watson since he’s not in public view. But Rapoport said it’s his understanding that the NFL would not use the exempt list even if another team trades for Watson. His explanation was that Watson has not been charged with a felony or violent crime. While that is true, it’s also only one of the circumstances under which Roger Goodell can use the list. Another is if an investigation leads Goodell to believe that a player “may have” violated the policy. In past cases where Goodell has used the exempt list without criminal charges, there was the public release of evidence, such as personal documents in which Josh Brown appeared to admit to abusing his wife in 2016 and when video surfaced of Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman during an incident in 2018. But there’s also another situation that’s important to consider: In 2019, the NFL didn’t put Antonio Brown on the exempt list immediately after a former trainer filed a civil suit alleging rape (the lawsuit has been settled out of court). But, later that season, after league investigators met with the plaintiff and an artist Brown threatened after she told SI her account of Brown’s sexual misconduct, several outlets then reported the NFL was prepared to place Brown on the exempt list if any team signed him. By that point, the NFL had collected information in the course of its investigation that supported the use of the exempt list. And it has had the opportunity to do so in the seven months since the first civil suit was filed against Watson. As of August, 10 of the plaintiffs suing Watson had already met with the NFL, with an 11th scheduled at the time.
2. There is corroborating information that supports at least some of the women’s accounts. (We say “at least some,” because we can only speak to what we, at Sports Illustrated, have independently corroborated.) We know the impact of photos or videos, but the reality is that they rarely exist for allegations of sexual misconduct. In this case, in addition to the detailed accounts of about two dozen women that closely mirror each other, SI has reviewed corroborating information in the course of our reporting that the NFL would likely also be able to obtain in its investigation.
In our story detailing the account of “Mary,” a massage therapist who said Watson behaved inappropriately during their 2019 appointment, we reviewed messages Mary sent to Watson when he tried to book again with her. She told him he’d made her uncomfortable in their previous session, and wrote in one message, “I just do massage.” We spoke to a relative she called directly following the session, whose account of what Mary told her then aligned with Mary’s account to SI. Later, we also spoke to a veteran therapist who had referred Watson to Mary, and she confirmed that Mary reported concerns about Watson’s conduct to her after the appointment. And we reviewed a text message this therapist sent to Mary in 2019, in which the veteran therapist wrote, “whether the creepy stuff is his intention or not, he does it every time,” adding the parenthetical, “only 1 therapist hasn’t complained.” (Mary has not filed a lawsuit.)
For the account of Ashley Solis, we independently reviewed a Facebook messenger exchange sent the the day after Solis’s appointment with Watson. “I have a colleague that was solicited during a session by a professional athlete at her in-home studio,” a therapist whom Solis worked with wrote, seeking advice from the same industry veteran who connected Mary with Watson. These are just two of the accounts, but they show the kind of corroborating information that can be collected separate from the criminal investigation or civil court proceedings.
3. Some of the allegations won’t result in criminal charges. There’s been a lot of emphasis on whether Watson will face criminal charges, which in Texas would be decided by a grand jury for felony counts. But it’s important to keep in mind that many of the allegations don’t rise to a felony level and thus may not get the same consideration. Of the 10 criminal complaints that had been filed against Watson as of last month, three alleged sexual assault, defined in Texas as nonconsensual penetration. This is a second-degree felony. The other seven alleged indecent assault—this includes allegations that Watson purposely touched a therapist’s hand with his penis without her consent—which in Texas is a misdemeanor offense. “Some people might feel like indecent exposure or some of these more misdemeanor sexual offenses are minimal and not worth pursuing,” Elizabeth Boyce, director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, told SI earlier this year. “But actually, these are patterns of behavior that often become worse over time.” And some of the plaintiffs have not filed criminal complaints. There’s no one-size-fits-all response for people who have experienced trauma, especially given that the criminal justice system is often ill-equipped to deal with sexual violence. As such, criminal charges are not the sole determinant of if a person committed a wrongdoing and inflicted harm on another person.
4. Watson’s camp is motivated to get a deal done. The Texans are as well, though they've to this point made clear they won’t move off their expected trade compensation in order to move Watson sooner. We say this because it’s difficult to parse out how much of the reported interest in Watson is real, and how much of it is his camp or the Texans trying to stoke the trade market. With that in mind, it was interesting that Peter King reported in his Monday column, “I do hear that Miami owner Stephen Ross is not pushing his football people to deal for Watson right now.” This throws some cold water on the notion that a deal with Miami, the team Watson’s camp has made clear he’d waive his no-trade clause for, has been on the verge for weeks. We’ll find out in the next seven days, but there are many people around the league who can’t fathom the idea of a team trading for Watson right now—even if their objections are less about morality and more about asset protection.
5. The first plaintiff began seeking recourse well before Watson’s trade demand. We’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating for those who have suggested that the allegations against Watson were linked in some way to his not wanting to play for the Texans anymore. The message Solis’s colleague sent the veteran therapist, seeking advice, was sent the day after Solis’s appointment with Watson in March 2020. Solis also told SI that she told her father what happened the day of the session. She asked him not to tell anyone, but he reached out to one of her aunts, and she soon heard from a lawyer. As we reported in August, Solis said this lawyer was going to represent her but then told her they could not take her case after running it past a higher-up at his firm. She was passed off to several other lawyers but gave up for a few months, before being connected with Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, an attorney at Tony Buzbee’s firm, in early December 2020. This was about a month before Watson made his trade demand to the Texans.
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