Deshaun Watson can’t decide between accountability and innocence
The Browns quarterback has been suspended 11 games and fined $5 million for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, but questions remain about whether he understands the severity of his actions
I’m not sure that Deshaun Watson gets it.
Seventeen months and 24 accusers later, Watson has received what on the surface appears to be a considerable sentence. On Thursday, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed that Watson, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, would be suspended for 11 games and fined $5 million for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The penalty is in connection with allegations that Watson engaged in sexual misconduct and sexually assaulted women during massage sessions.
After reading Watson’s statement on Thursday and listening to his remarks, I’m convinced that the suspension should have been longer — 15 games. That would likely have compelled Cleveland to shelve Watson for the season. He needs time to think about all that has transpired since March 2021.
In a statement released Thursday, Watson said, “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made.”
But when he met with reporters Thursday, Watson struck a more defiant tone.
“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone,” he said. “I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence.”
Which is it? Accountability for poor decisions? Or innocence?
Two weeks ago, judge Sue L. Robinson found that Watson committed four instances of “non-violent sexual assault.” She found Watson’s conduct to be “egregious” and “predatory” and levied a six-game suspension. The NFL correctly appealed the decision. If a price can be placed on bad behavior toward women, six games was too low a price.
Yes, Watson is not facing legal action. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him earlier this year.
But the larger question — one that occurred to me as I listened to Watson address reporters – is does he really believe that he is not culpable, that he did nothing wrong, that everything was consensual, that he is being victimized, targeted, and exploited.
It’s hard to believe that everyone is making it up. This is what it boils down to: Either you believe women, or you do not. I do.
I wanted to believe Watson when he initially and adamantly professed his innocence.
In March 2021, I suggested in a column that Watson may have been a victim of Houston Texans payback. Before then, Watson was becoming an emerging face of the NFL. He was a franchise quarterback and, for all we knew, a paragon of virtue. (I took the “paragon of virtue” part with a grain of salt because, who really knows.)
But Watson had taken a principled stand against the Texans, saying that he had been promised to be included in personnel decisions and was not. He then demanded a trade and vowed never to play for the Texans. It was at that point that more that 20 women came forward, using one attorney, to accuse Watson of sexual assault and misconduct in connection with regular massages.
It was as if the franchise had been protecting Watson and withdrew its protection once Watson said he no longer wanted to play for the organization. One does not excuse the other: Watson could have engaged in abhorrent behavior and the Texans could have turned a blind eye until he bit the hand that fed him.
In any event, the Cleveland Browns, supposedly after doing their due diligence, signed Watson to a fully-guaranteed, five-year contract worth $230 million after acquiring him from the Texans in a trade in March 2022. In the intervening months, more allegations emerged. There were 24 plaintiffs, the league interviewed 12. Of those 12, five were presented to the hearing officer. One was rejected. The stories of four women were presented by NFL investigators and the narratives were graphic, convincing, and similar.
I’m more convinced than I was in March 2021 that Watson may have crossed several lines.
The most significant part of Thursday’s settlement between the league and the NFLPA is not the suspension — Watson will play football again — but the order to receive counseling. Under the agreement, Watson will undergo a mandatory professional evaluation by behavioral experts.
Will Watson embrace this opportunity to emerge from this scandal as a better person? He said that he wants to.
“My focus going forward is on working to become the best version of myself on and off the field,” he said in a statement. If that’s true, Watson should embrace therapy and explore his mental health in a way that perhaps he never has.
Just as important is how Watson’s inner circle responds to the turn of events. Watson is a wealthy young man. He is entering the first year of his new contract. Many of those who surround star athletes don’t really care about them — not enough to tell them the truth.
This is no small thing as I wonder whether this punishment will be sufficient to scare Watson straight — especially when he doesn’t seem to believe he did anything wrong.
Will Watson’s inner circle remain in lockstep and also insist on his innocence? Or will someone step up and tell him the truth?
Based on what I’ve heard so far, I just don’t think he gets it.