The Browns plan to conduct their mandatory minicamp next week via a series of traveling practices, beginning in Berea, Ohio, then Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and, finally, at their home stadium in Cleveland.
Perhaps, at some point, this was recast as a strategic opportunity to showcase their new quarterback while also minimizing distractions in one single location. But now? These practices should not involve Deshaun Watson at all.
The latest developments in the Watson legal saga, this time via a report from The New York Times detailing both the possible scope of Watson’s alleged behavior and the lengths to which the Texans and his own attorney went to facilitate his attempts to both seek out massages and control the damage from their fallouts, make one aspect of his pending disciplinary process with the NFL crystal clear: There is no way the league can allow him near a football field right now. Not as the number of women coming forward continues to change; a 24th civil lawsuit was filed Monday against Watson. Not while Watson’s legal defense seems to be caving in on itself, with Watson increasingly looking like someone who was trolling the internet for sex from licensed massage therapists and methodically identifying and targeting potentially vulnerable therapists who would conform to his unorthodox requests and nondisclosure agreements conveniently provided to him from his old team’s security director. Not, as he so claims, merely stumbling into these encounters.
In some ways we are just at the beginning of the process, with an on-camera appearance from two of the women suing Watson on HBO and additional reporting carving open a new dimension to a case that was already difficult to stomach. Similar stories, with the details becoming more graphic, are starting to paint a fuller picture of who Watson may be behind the curtain. Until the NFL knows for certain what this looks like, it cannot allow him to simply chuck a football on camera each day while donning the shield, pretending this is all some kind of misunderstanding (which Watson seems to have alluded to in an Instagram post Tuesday). Imagine if there is more down this rabbit hole?
The Times’ reporting unleashed a fresh barrage of calls to commissioner Roger Goodell to rush out in public with his gavel and suspend Watson immediately. Amid the current state of play, Goodell should wait on any sort of suspension until the conclusion of all civil cases currently pending against Watson, which are slated to be tried in 2023. In the meantime? Figure it out. In the working world outside of football, there are countless examples of an employee being kept in some kind of legal purgatory while the process plays out. The NFL does not require a court of law to determine its punishment, but as the complexities of these cases spread and grow roots, it should allow the civil trials to inform the most important disciplinary decision Goodell has made since Ray Rice. It is not the NFL’s responsibility to return Watson to the field in his athletic prime. It is not the NFL’s responsibility to make the Browns a Super Bowl contender. It’s already buried one of the most interesting teams in football deep into the irrelevant recesses of its schedule. It’s already shielding its highest-profile announcers from having to discuss the Watson case in prime time. It seems to know what this is—or what it could turn into.
While the optics of Watson’s collecting a salary as he sits on the exempt list are troubling, it could almost be recast as a punishment of the Browns themselves, whose “odyssey” to become “comfortable” with Watson is looking flimsier with each new lawsuit and new strand of evidence. If nothing in the Times report was new information to the Browns, they should come out and admit as much. If much of what surfaced in the Times report is new information to the Browns, they should come out and admit as much, even if they blew past the point of no return with a fawning press conference a few weeks ago. One would hope, with all the Ivy League brain power in their front office, that they considered the possibility that the Watson signing could end up looking worse, alongside their ideal scenario involving us forgetting the whole thing ever happened after watching Watson throw a few touchdown passes.
Goodell previously had said the exempt list was off the table for Watson because two separate grand juries in Texas declined to indict the quarterback, thus removing a criminal element from the case. That said, new information can always alter his approach. As Sports Illustrated previously reported, Lauren Baxley, one of the original 22 plaintiffs in the Watson case, had always felt this was a crime of psychological violence. The commissioner should take the time to consider as much after hearing a woman who is not suing Watson telling The Times about how Watson repeatedly asked her for oral sex during an appointment.
At the moment, the options in the NFL’s holster are dwindling. It could suspend Watson now, risking both a massive overreach if, somehow, dozens of legal cases fold like a house of cards in civil court and Watson is vindicated or a comical wrist-slapping that won’t hold up against a flood of new Watson accusers. Or, it can heed Tuesday’s warning that it might not know everything it needs to.
In the meantime Watson, the NFL and the Browns can wait.
More Deshaun Watson Coverage:
- Watson Plaintiff: ‘I’m Not a Sex Worker. I Am a Massage Therapist.’
- Watson Plaintiff Thinks ‘He’s Being Rewarded for Bad Behavior’ With New Contract
- When and for How Long Will Deshaun Watson Be Suspended?
- How Deshaun Watson and 22 Women Got Here
- After the Browns Signed Deshaun Watson, a Blast Radius of ’Emotions and Anger’