On Jan. 12, 2020 at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson lobbed a touchdown pass to tight end Darren Fells with 1:21 remaining in the first quarter of an AFC playoff game. The throw - Watson's second scoring strike in the game's first 14 minutes - pushed Houston's lead over the Chiefs to 21-0, en route to 24-0.
Since that moment, Watson has dragged down the Texans franchise. On the field. Off the field. In the public eye.
And now, in the courtroom.
The Texans infamously lost that game to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, 51-31. The following season Watson led the NFL in passing yards, but Houston went only 4-12 thanks in part to some of the quarterback's late-game gaffes (his last-minute fumble against the Cincinnati Bengals immediately comes to mind).
In 2021 he was a constant cloud, first demanding a trade and then showing up to Houston's facility but never taking a snap - nor answering a question - while under investigation for multiple charges of sexual misconduct in conjunction with multiple massage sessions.
The Texans attempted to wash their hands of the three-time Pro Bowler this offseason, trading him to the Cleveland Browns for a huge package including three first-round picks (2022, 2023 and 2024).
Watson is gone, but still here more than ever. The Texans now have to defend themselves in court against charges that they were basically accomplices to their former player's massage misconduct.
Plaintiffs attorney Tony Buzbee announced on Monday morning that the Texans are now the defendants in “the first case” against the NFL franchise, citing “incredibly damning” evidence that the Texans “knew or should have known” about Watson’s behavior.
Though steadfastly maintaining his innocence, Watson has also admitted ... well, something.
Though he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, he settled 20 of 24 civil lawsuits against him from massage therapists. The NFL will conduct a disciplinary hearing starting Tuesday, a session overseen by Sue L. Robinson, a disciplinary officer for both the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The NFL Players Association harbors the belief that the NFL will soon hand down a full-season suspension.
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Despite taking all that into consideration, Buzbee's attempt to place responsibility on an employer for one of its employee's off-the-clock conduct seems a stretch, if not wholly frivolous.
Had Watson acted inappropriately at a game or a team-sponsored event? No-brainer. But if he acted alone, as a civilian, inside a massage parlor room? No way.
Teams have guardrails in place for "conduct detrimental to the team," but not so much for "conduct detrimental to the world at large." Consider that precedent for a moment. If companies were held accountable - legally - for every employee's actions around the clock, no one would ever be hired. Employees would be demoted to simply contract laborers, extended no security, no benefits and no legal connections.
To our knowledge, the family of the woman that burned to death trapped inside her vehicle after being hit by a car driven 156 mph by former receiver Henry Ruggs hasn't sued the Las Vegas Raiders. Same for the victim in former Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisber's alleged 2008 rape case. Ditto for the family of Cameron Ray, who hasn't sued the Dallas Cowboys despite cornerback Kelvin Joseph being at the scene of their son's murder last March and being interviewed as a "person of interest" by Dallas police.
What makes Buzbee's case(s) different?
The attorney uses gotcha words such as "facilitated" and "incredibly damning." Says the Texans "turned a blind eye" and even "enabled" Watson. He claims to have evidence - he also promises "many" lawsuits against the team - proving that the Texans knew enough about Watson's actions to be accountable.
According to the lawsuit, the Texans provided Watson with a membership at The Houstonian Hotel and spa, paying for his rooms there and even loaning him their massage table.
Unlike the other examples, Watson's actions weren't one-time mistakes but rather a pattern of nefarious behavior.
Buzbee's charge? Prove Watson didn't, in fact, act alone. Because while the Texans may have "enabled'' their player to "use hotel rooms to get massages,'' that doesn't prove they enabled him to commit crimes.
Having said that: The Texans' long trickle down the gutter since Jan. 2020 seemed to be ending. But if Buzbee's claims indeed have merit, the trouble could be just beginning.