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Why aren’t NFL players speaking out on Deshaun Watson?

The silence from his peers in the locker room is deafening

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, retired federal judge and current NFL arbitrator Sue Robinson may rule on whether the league should suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson over accusations of sexual misconduct from more than 20 women. While a substantial suspension could appease some, there’s an alternative universe in which Watson would have already been exiled from every locker room in the sport.

For that to come about, however, a majority of players in the NFL would have to refuse to associate themselves with a man accused of repeatedly engaging in sexual misconduct. The fact this hasn’t happened is an indictment of the men who make up the NFL. 

Each player in the Browns locker room who elects to play with Watson without speaking out about the accusations is complicit in a culture that permits, if not reinforces, the actions he’s accused of. How are these men comfortable with Watson leading their team?

After all, NFL players self-regulate who they share locker rooms with all the time. That very same group of Browns players helped oust their previous quarterback, Baker Mayfield, for his attitude and subpar performance on the field, putting him on thin ice with the team even before Watson became available. (Indeed, Robbie Anderson, a wideout for Mayfield’s new team, the Carolina Panthers, has done more speaking out about his new quarterback than any Browns player has about Watson.) Back in 2013, Philadelphia Eagles players were outspoken about not trusting wideout Riley Cooper when a video revealed him using the N-word. Cooper’s career would essentially be over a couple of years later. In 2016, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees criticized then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem. There also isn’t a single openly gay player in an NFL locker room – which takes a lot of self-regulation to accomplish.

Yet when it comes to Watson, the reaction from players has been either silence or celebration. Just a few weeks ago, Watson took his offensive players on vacation to the Bahamas for a team-building trip. We haven’t seen even a hint of hesitation from any of Watson’s peers.

I’ve heard the justifications for why players are silent: First and foremost that the players’ sole focus is winning and they’ll win by any means. That idea is dehumanizing. It relegates players to being one-dimensional jocks who value the chance to win a Super Bowl over basic human decency or their #GirlDad statuses. I value winning, too, but I don’t want life victories to come while I’m knowingly in partnership with someone accused of what Watson has been accused of. That’s a loss, not a win.

I’ve also been told that players are guided by the fact that prosecutors are not pursuing the women’s claims, or that they’re waiting for the NFL’s decision to come down. That is simply another cop-out. When police kill unarmed Black people, many players will rightfully take a knee regardless of what the courts say. Sometimes, they will protest because of what the courts rule. NFL players are also outspoken about rulings handed down by the league almost every time it levies a suspension. So the idea that these men are suddenly sticklers for the rule of law just doesn’t jibe. It’s a way to eschew complicity.

I understand that it’s potentially risky for a player’s career to speak out about a star. Of course an organization is going to choose someone like Watson, with the highest guaranteed contract in the league, over, say, a backup right tackle. That’s why this isn’t about just one or two players speaking up. It’s about the entire locker room. No franchise is going to pick a quarterback over a whole team, no matter how great that player is on the field.

I generally avoid putting the onus on players to speak out on systemic issues impacting the most vulnerable among us. When it comes to issues of race, for instance, the owners, general managers and coaches — who are mostly white — should be the ones speaking out because racism and white supremacy are burdens that white folks, especially those in power, need to hold and fight against. But just like it’s important to hold white men responsible for addressing racial inequities, it’s equally important to hold all men responsible for addressing misogyny and violence against women.

This is not just a problem for the NFL team owners who lined up to offer Watson his exorbitant contract. The Deshaun Watson story is about the pervasiveness of rape culture and the people who perpetuate it. We’ve seen how the Browns organization structured Watson’s contract so that any punishment would have limited financial impact on him. We’ve seen how the NFL has enabled abusers in its inconsistent and oftentimes lenient punishments (See: Ray Rice or Ben Roethlisberger). We’ve seen fans continue to cheer for anyone who makes their teams better no matter what terrors they’ve allegedly committed. None of the parties involved seem too concerned about the well-being of the survivors.

The players represent an important cog in this machine that uplifts men accused of harming women. The first step to dismantling this machine is for everyone to recognize their roles in its perpetuation. For Watson’s peers, that means saying something — either publicly or to team management — that indicates that they stand with women. Even if it’s uncomfortable, or means a missed opportunity for a playoff run.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.