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Deshaun Watson Ruling a Finger Wag at the NFL, Too

Suspension makes it clear: Arbitrator Sue L. Robinson is calling for the NFL to wake up and improve both its understanding and policies surrounding sexual harassment, assault and misconduct.

Here are the lone, palatable silver linings amid the news that Deshaun Watson will be suspended only six games for dozens of instances of sexual harassment and misconduct: The decision written by former federal Judge Sue L. Robinson leaves no doubt that Watson’s behavior was reprehensible, enough that the currently sycophantic fan base in Cleveland cannot deny the creepiness emanating from its quarterback (“more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson wrote). He is not allowed to get a massage outside of the team facility in the interest of everyone’s safety. Not exactly a face-of-the-community type player the Jimmy and Dee Haslam family predictably coddled in their statement Monday, pathetically apologizing to those who were “triggered” by the ordeal.

More important, Robinson, who serves as the disciplinary officer appointed by the NFL and NFLPA, noted the league’s behavior in prior instances of domestic violence, sexual harassment, assault and misconduct had also been inconsistent—or at least pale in comparison to how it would like it to appear—and that the ball is in the league’s court to fix its infrastructure before expecting a judge to do its dirty work.

Separate photos of Roger Goodell at a podium during the draft and Deshaun Watson at a press conference

The NFL had leaked before Monday’s ruling that it wanted a yearlong suspension plus indefinite time if there was any new information that might surface. The league likely did so understanding that its treatment of past players made suspending Watson for that long impossible. Robinson noted that the NFL reached its six-game threshold by tripping over itself during the Ray Rice saga.

From the ruling …

When Commissioner Goodell followed such precedent despite the violence of Rice’s conduct, a public outcry ensued. The NFL responded by revising its Policy to include a presumptive 6-game suspension without pay for certain first-time violent offenders, including for Policy violations involving: (1) criminal assault or battery (felony); (2) domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence; or (3) sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent. By revising its Policy, the NFL gave fair notice to its players and to the public of the probable consequences of certain violent conduct.

In short, Robinson is calling for the NFL to wake up and improve both its understanding and policies surrounding sexual harassment, assault and misconduct. The next Watson, should a similar case arrive, can be punished the way the NFL wanted to punish Watson. The way a sweeping majority of us would have preferred Watson to be punished.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. Back in August 2021, former colleague Jenny Vrentas told us this was going to happen. The NFL’s independent investigatory arm was working on its Watson case buoyed by a completely dated idea of sexual assault. As one of the accusers told her: “How do you define violence? Because I felt like I was violently attacked psychologically when I was stuck in that room with him. I know that I’m not the only one who felt that way, and I’m not the only one who continues to feel that way.” Their investigators were not briefed on the latest developments on how to interview subjects of sexual trauma, and framed questions in a way that, experts believe, could “exacerbate some of the feelings of guilt, shame [and] confusion.” They asked Watson’s victims what they were wearing, for goodness’ sake. The very basic tenets of the information handed to Robinson could be flawed.

This was the tool belt Robinson was working with when she wrote her ruling. While in desire of some precision pliers and a Phillips screwdriver, Robinson was handed from the NFL a blunt hammer, twisted and mangled from years of misuse. The punishment reflected as much in her 15-page ruling.

“Although I have found Mr. Watson to have violated the Policy, I have done so using the NFL’s post-hoc definitions of the prohibited conduct at issue,” Robinson wrote. “Defining prohibited conduct plays a critical role in the rule of law, enabling people to predict the consequences of their behavior.”

We have, for years, desired the NFL to actually dive into the societal issues that are gnawing at the heart of its product instead of adding soulless layers of bureaucracy to the process (A racial reckoning, you say? Let’s hire corporate partner Jay-Z!). It is their unique desire to appear actionable instead of actually becoming actionable that the Browns likely gambled on when they signed Watson in the first place. In that war room of callous Ivy League operators, the Browns were able to concoct everything, from the unfeeling press conference where they pledged unwavering allegiance to Watson, to Monday’s Kevin Stefanski meeting with the media where he admits, without a great deal of specificity that he’s “talked to women” about this. Their approach, which has all the warmth of a birthday card from your insurance company, is a reflection of how serious they feel we, as a society, and the NFL, by extension, are actually taking these problems. Underneath it all is the ultimate assurance that all of us, be it fan, NFL employee, business partner, fantasy player or opportunistic media member will look the other way after enough time has passed so long as we’re all getting what we want out of the deal.

Goodell is surrounded by attorneys the way a good old oak is smothered by lantern flies this time of year, so hopefully someone will grab his ear and explain that this ruling was as much a finger wag at the NFL as it was the quarterback. If Goodell would like the kind of judicial system that takes sexual assault with an appropriate measure of seriousness, he and his team, the owners he works for and the coaches on said owners payroll must actually take sexual assault with an appropriate measure of seriousness. All it took was the hiring of a former federal judge and a high-profile embarrassment of a suspension to make that clear. 

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