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From prized QB to pariah: What don’t we know about the Deshaun Watson situation?

Only time will tell us what’s really going on – or went on – in Houston

Doesn’t it seem strange?

One month ago, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was considered a paragon of virtue and a coveted commodity.

Football analysts were singing Watson’s praises as a rare talent and franchise player beloved by teammates.

In the realm of players’ rights and player activism, Watson was an emerging hero of player resistance. In a public and protracted battle with the Texans, whom Watson accused of reneging on a promise to include him in personnel decisions, Watson demanded a trade. He seemed to have the franchise in a bind.

A month later, Watson’s name is muddied and his options have shrunk to near zero. In the last week, more than 20 women have stepped forward to accuse Watson of sexual assault and misconduct in connection.

Questions outweigh answers.

The most important question is whether the allegations are true. Did Watson abuse women he paid for massages? Were the relationships consensual and — even if they were — does consent offset charges of abuse?

More questions:  Is Watson the victim of an ambush?

Is this all a coincidence? Did the Texans know of the allegations all along? Did they know when they signed Watson to a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract?

Was the franchise blindsided by the allegations? Or were the Texans withholding the information as a trump card in case their star quarterback — or anyone else for that matter — got out of line?

What I’ve learned over years of reporting, spending time in locker rooms and at practices is that we really don’t know the athletes we cover outside the half hour we spend together in locker rooms.

Has Watson been set up, or is this who the congenial-seeming quarterback was all along?

Time will tell.

I have been around Watson a couple of times and found him to be engaging and polite. But these were also media events.

What I’ve learned over years of reporting, spending time in locker rooms and at practices is that we really don’t know the athletes we cover outside the half hour we spend together in locker rooms during the season, after practice and after games.

Reporters are likely to call players and coaches “a good guy” if they give us time for interviews. Reporters even have Good Guy Awards for athletes who give us what we need, when we need it.

So it’s possible that someone could be Attila the Hun while projecting himself as Mister Rogers.

Meanwhile, responsible media will walk on a razor’s edge and refuse to pass judgment while gathering information.

Regardless of how this turns out for Watson, the Texans quarterback has a steep public relations mountain to climb. The #MeToo movement is real and has the moral high ground in calling out rich and powerful men for abusing power and abusing women.

On top of that, the presumption of innocence died an inglorious death decades ago. Thanks in large part to social media, an accusation that goes viral instantly calls reputations into question and puts the accused on the defensive, possibly forever.

Even before the advent of social media, raging headlines could kill a reputation. The subsequent printed apology or pronouncement of innocence could never totally undo the initial damage.

So, what are we to do with Watson?

He has lost much, if not all, of the leverage he seemed to have just two weeks ago when teams were lining up to trade virtually everything for his services. And Watson seemed ready to sit out the season for the sake of principle.

What NFL team now would be willing to mortgage its future for Watson? His only landing spot would seem to be Houston and will Houston be willing to have him back?

All we have from Watson is this denial via Twitter:  “As a result of a social media post by a publicity-seeking plaintiff’s lawyer, I recently became aware of a lawsuit that has apparently been filed against me. I have not yet seen the complaint, but I know this: I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect. The plaintiff’s lawyer claims that this isn’t about money, but before filing suit he made a baseless six-figure settlement demand, which I quickly rejected. Unlike him, this isn’t about money for me — it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.”

Will this be enough to salvage Watson’s reputation?

The NFL is still reeling from its mishandling of the Ray Rice affair in 2014 when NFL officials seemed prepared to protect a star player, and the NFL shield. In Rice’s case the NFL had video evidence of the Baltimore Ravens player slugging his fiancee in an elevator. Rice was suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

He was reinstated after a successful appeal of the league’s decision, but his career was effectively over.

In Watson’s case, the NFL has mounting allegations to evaluate and myriad questions: Did the alleged abuse happen? Were the relationships consensual? Is this blackmail? Extortion? Is the quarterback Attila the Hun?

Time will tell.

What we do know is this: The pendulum has swung in favor of the franchise that owns Watson’s rights and is determined to keep them. And him.

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.