Up Next

Locker Room Talk

Deshaun Watson’s return leaves little learned or accomplished, but clear winners and losers

After an 11-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the Cleveland Browns quarterback is back. What changed for the better?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. There was a time when I was ambivalent. Is he a miscreant? A predator? Is he merely the product of a celebrity-driven culture where money and entitlement reign supreme? Clearly, Watson is a little bit of each.

This much certain: Watson, at age 27, is a fallen star whose football career and long-term reputation hang in the balance. On Sunday, Watson will start his first game since January 2021. His absence is the result of a barrage of sexual misconduct accusations from massage therapists who claim that Watson abused them during therapy sessions. As a result of the allegations and a subsequent NFL investigation, Watson served an 11-game suspension. Twenty-four lawsuits were eventually filed against Watson, all but one of which have been settled.

According to their attorney Tony Buzbee, 10 those accusers will be sitting in a luxury box at NRG Stadium on Sunday when Watson makes his NFL return against his old team, the Houston Texans. Buzby told the Associated Press that the point of showing up is “to kind of make the statement, ‘Hey we’re still here. We matter. Our voice was heard, and this is not something that’s over.’ ”

The irony of having Watson come off suspension in Houston puts the league in position to turn an embarrassment into ratings.

Watson spoke to the media on Thursday in Cleveland and said he was advised by his legal and clinical team to address only football-related questions. Watson also declined to go into detail when asked what he learned about himself while undergoing counseling and therapy and how he’ll apply what he learned.

“I respect your question, I understand, but that’s more in that phase of clinical and legal stuff. I’ve been advised to stay away from that and keep it personal,” Watson said.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson speaks during a news conference before a joint practice with the Philadelphia Eagles at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on Aug. 18 in Berea, Ohio.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Watson spent the first five seasons of his NFL career in Houston and was responsible for the franchise’s brief, two-season renaissance. A former first-round selection, Watson enjoyed a fantastic rookie season in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He led Houston to back-to-back winning seasons and first-place finishes in the AFC South in 2018 and 2019. The Texans slipped to 4-12 in 2020.

Watson’s return to action on Sunday ends a four-month saga which began in August when the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed that Watson would serve an 11-game suspension, pay a $5 million fine and undergo a professional evaluation and treatment.

My own Watson timeline begins shortly after the 2020 season when Watson demanded a trade after that 4-12 season when a series of coaching and front-office moves were made. Watson had been assured by Texans owner Cal McNair that he would be consulted on all such moves. I admired Watson for speaking up and using his leverage as a franchise player to bring about change. My sense at the time was that Watson wanted the Texans to bring in African American candidates for head coach and general manager positions. Houston brought in Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy for an interview only after Watson protested. After the Texans hired a white general manager, Nick Caserio, Watson dug in his heels — he no longer wanted to play for Houston. The Texans vowed not to trade Watson, even as a long line formed for his services.

At this point, I clearly was on Watson’s side.

Then, the other shoe dropped.

This timeline began in March 2021 when, during this tug-of-war between Watson and the Texans, the first of the sexual assault lawsuits were brought against Watson. The complaints were damming and eerily similar in their graphic details. NFL investigators eventually concluded that Watson used his position as an NFL player to lure mostly inexperienced massage therapists to locations outside the team facility and coerced them into sexualized massage sessions.

Multiple realities can be simultaneously true:

  • Watson was correct in standing up to the Texans and demanding a trade.
  • The Texans likely were aware of their star player’s massage proclivities but chose to look the other way because he was performing at a superstar level.
  • Watson preyed on unsuspecting therapists. Many of the women who complained were solo entrepreneurs trying to establish a business. They viewed Watson as an opportunity to have an anchor client who could jump-start their businesses. Through Watson they could conceivably attract a well-paying clientele. Watson apparently exploited those ambitions and sexualized the sessions.

So here we are, four months after the 11-game suspension was announced, and the overarching questions are what has been accomplished and what lessons have been learned.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson runs a drill during a practice at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on Nov. 23 in Berea, Ohio.

Nick Cammett/Getty Images

I’d argue that nothing has been changed and not much has been learned. I’ve come to despise the forced apologies, the staged media-apologies by athletes that largely serve the public relations needs of the team and the leagues in which they operate.

We’re coming off such an event with Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets star whose five-game suspension without pay ended days ago after he tweeted links to an antisemitic documentary. Irving much like Watson, initially refused to apologize. Only after the league and the team stepped in and threatened an indefinite suspension did Irving apologize. Irving did not think and likely does not believe that he did anything wrong or that he is an antisemite. He apologized because it was a condition of his getting back on the court.

Watson said he did nothing wrong and even after the suspension was announced in August. Watson said more than a few times that he believes he did nothing wrong. “I have always stood on my innocence, and I always said that I never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone,” Watson told reporters. “And I am continuing to stand on that.”

Similar to Irving, Watson said he wanted to get on with his life and career when asked why he wanted to apologize. The only way to accomplish that was to yield.

“At the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career,” Watson said. “For us to be able to move forward, I must be able to take steps and put pride to the side.”

The more intriguing question, now that Watson’s suspension has ended is who wins and who loses. The scoreboard couldn’t be clearer. The Cleveland Browns win because the team acquired a superstar-caliber star quarterback who probably would never have been available except for his fall from grace. Before the lawsuits became public, NFL teams had lined up to trade for Watson. After the lawsuits became public, nearly every team backed off — except the Browns and owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam.

In justifying the trade, Dee Haslam turned the tables and threw shade at Watson’s accusers by implying that they were sex workers. “I think there’s just a huge opportunity to talk about the major issues in our country in this area, such as sex trafficking, massage parlor use,” Haslam told reporters in August.

Watson wins, in the short term. He wanted out of Houston and not only got out but was rewarded with the richest contract in NFL history: a $230 million fully guaranteed deal.

The NFL wins. After independent arbiter Sue L. Robinson gave Watson a six-game suspension, the league responded to howls of public outrage by appealing the decision and asking for a harsher penalty. The league wanted Watson suspended for the entire season and the postseason. But as Robinson shrewdly noted in her decision: “The NFL may be a ‘forward-facing’ organization, but it is not necessarily a forward-looking one. Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct.”

Nonetheless, the NFL and the NFLPA agreed on the 11-game suspension, coupled with the most dramatic of return dates in Houston. The NFL wins again.

So, who loses?

The Houston Texans and their fan base certainly lose. The Texans continue a downward spiral, the expected consequence of losing a franchise quarterback like Watson.

The women who say they were victimized by Watson lose, even as they anticipate settlement payments. Perhaps they will start businesses, but what about the scars?

According to NFL investigators who interviewed some of the therapists, one reported that she was frustrated, upset and embarrassed after her session with Watson. Another therapist testified that she changed her business practices and suffered from depression and sleeplessness because of her interaction with Watson. Still another said she was uncertain whether she would continue to pursue a career in massage therapy.

As for Watson, who knows who and what he’ll be if he plays for another 10 years. Time heals most wounds and in the world of sport and play, winning heals all wounds. If the gamble on Watson pays off and the Browns win big in coming seasons, all will be forgiven, if not forgotten.

Too often, fans’ reaction to their stars’ bad behavior in sports is a numb ambivalence. They become anesthetized to wrongdoing if the results bring wins.

It’ll take more than winning for me to look at Watson the same way.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.