What you’re about to read is not quite a stirring round of applause for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or another 800-word picking-apart of Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson following the news that Goodell will appeal Watson’s six-game suspension and almost certainly win.
In life, there’s merit in recognizing the moments we fall short of ideal and correcting the behavior (though the real secret sauce seems to be realizing that we fall short more often than we reach whatever ideal would seem to be at the moment and keep chugging anyway). Judge Sue L. Robinson, the NFL and NFLPA’s hand-picked independent arbitrator in these disciplinary cases, pointed out that the NFL’s past precedents in disciplinary cases made it difficult for her to reach the kind of yearlong suspension of Watson the league would have wanted. Very little in the CBA was properly defined. While we don’t need anyone to tell us that dozens of alleged instances of sexual harassment and assault are not good, Robinson believed there was no avenue for her to travel beyond the harshest penalty the NFL handed out for a first-time offender whom she deemed “nonviolent.” Between the lines, one could feel her saying: If you want this so badly, you’re going to have to go ahead and do it on your own.
And so the NFL did. For that, it should be commended. Just not necessarily for the reasons we all might expect.
For the first time, the Watson case seems to be headed in a sensible direction. It’s not just a chance for Goodell (who will not be hearing the appeal, per Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, confirming a Pro Football Talk report) to right a wrong. It’s also a chance for Watson and the Browns to come at this removed from the feverish pursuit of a franchise-altering quarterback, or as someone buoyed by a super attorney trying to dismiss the complaints of dozens of women. Because of the nature of Cleveland’s pursuit of Watson, everything felt irresponsibly rushed. We all woke up to the scope and heft of what plaintiffs said Watson did, and wham, there he was holding up a brown No. 4 jersey. Here was a player accused of heinous acts while also simultaneously the subject of one of the most elaborate free agency courtships in NFL history. There was no time for survivors to see him as someone who was sorry, or as someone who was trying to change. Not that it makes what may have happened any better, or any easier to tolerate, but at least the order was not NON INDICTMENT —> Massive Record-Setting Contract —> Complete Denial at Opening Press Conference —> Statement from Team Saying You’ve Expressed Remorse When No One Quite Knows What They’re Talking About. The NFL can start to move these puzzle pieces around to try and tell a more sensitive story.
In the immediate aftermath of the NFL’s appeal, we’ve seen reports discussing the NFL’s desire for Watson to receive treatment. (Watson told reporters previously he has been working with a counselor provided by the Browns after responding to a question about counseling in his opening press conference by saying “I don’t have a problem.”) We’ve seen reports of the NFL seeking fines, which would theoretically reverse the contract games the Browns played to help Watson minimize financial loss during his suspension. We’ve seen reports expressing concern over a lack of remorse on Watson’s behalf.
Again, no one is saying that a genuinely remorseful Watson, a pocket full of fine money the NFL can use to assist survivors of sexual violence and a punished Browns front office is going to heal trauma or un-disgust a portion of NFL fans truly turned off by this. No one imagines the league suddenly being viewed as a caped crusader for all societal injustices. But it creates a moment to pause, to realize a moment (or moments) when we all fell short. That goes for some of us writing about the entire thing, too.
This isn’t going to be easy, of course. The NFL did not want this to happen. Goodell did not want to pull the reins away from his independent arbitrator in the first high-profile instance of its usage, wading back into the uncomfortable waters of being the league’s all-powerful judge and jury. The NFL likely did not want some of its major policy blind spots on sexual violence exposed by a former federal judge or some wonderfully enterprising reporters. Watson, it seems, clearly does not want this to happen. He has maintained that he has never even “disrespected” a woman, let alone sexually harassed two dozen of them. His apologies and the Browns' apologies to date have been for people who felt “triggered” by the reports and not to the women themselves. Watson has been signing autographs after practices and handing away various pieces of equipment to fans. He has said throughout this ordeal that he wants to “show people who I really am.” That’s certainly a step in this process, though the NFL’s decision to appeal contends that we’ve skipped a few in between.
And so, the appeal is what needed to happen. It’s not what anyone wants, but it’s the chance everyone needs to realize that there is no justice here without true corrections, without a second opportunity to get this right.
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