Appealing Watson's suspension gives the NFL a chance to course correct

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson walks during an NFL football practice in Berea, Ohio, Saturday, July 30, 2022. (David Dermer/AP)

Bad process equals bad results.

That’s the one-sentence history of Roger Goodell’s approach to “justice” during his tenure as commissioner of the National Football League. But with the news the NFL is appealing the first conduct policy decision of 2022 — the suspension given to Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson on Monday in connection with a string of alleged sexual assaults — Goodell has a chance to change his legacy and recalibrate the league’s approach to player discipline.

Watson recently settled 23 of 24 civil lawsuits filed in Texas by massage therapists alleging sexual harassment and assault during appointments in 2020 and 2021. Reporting by the New York Times showed Watson received massages from 66 different women over the course of 17 months. The quarterback has denied any wrongdoing.

The NFL suggested an indefinite suspension for Watson, with a minimum term of a year, and an $8-million fine. On Monday, retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson, who adjudicates all conduct policy cases, rejected that recommendation. Watson was instead given a six-game suspension and no fine.

In the 16-page report that accompanied her decision, Robinson says she found the NFL carried its burden to prove that Watson sexually assaulted four therapists. The report notes that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behaviour” and cites his lack of remorse as an aggravating factor in the decision. Robinson also describes the accusations as “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”

At this point, you may be wondering why Robinson only gave Watson six games — a question raised by many fans and critics of the league.

Robinson explains in her report that she is “bound by fair and consistent disciplinary determination.” In other words, the judge based her decision on other decisions the NFL has made in similar cases.

Ray Rice was originally suspended for just two games in 2014 for domestic abuse of his wife. It became a national news story when video of the assault leaked publicly. The outcry led to a change in the league’s policies and the institution of a six-game baseline suspension for gendered violence, domestic abuse or crimes with weapons.

As has been noted widely in relation to the Watson case, the league has historically come down harder on gambling and performance enhancing drugs than it has sexual assault or domestic violence. Six games is the same suspension DeAndre Hopkins received for a failed PED test. Tom Brady was suspended four games for his role in Deflategate. Calvin Ridley was suspended a year for gambling.

Robinson is in her role because the previous system was failing the league. In the 2020 CBA, the NFL and its players association on Robinson as the arbiter in these cases. In doing so, the league attempted to outsource responsibility for the business of determining appropriate punishments for off-field transgressions. But that shift didn’t erase the impact of the old system because Robinson is bound by those existing precedents.

That is recycling the same bad logic hoping for new results, when everyone has openly admitted the previous system didn’t work. The NFL has created a situation where six games is clearly too light but at the same time is steep historically.

In deciding to appeal the decision, the league has retaken responsibility. Under the old system, the PA didn’t like that Goodell was judge, jury and executioner, but he remains prosecutor and appeals court. The process now consists of three outside experts making recommendations to Goodell (or his designee), who will then make the final decision.

Sure, the PA will take the whole thing to court, but this is still a chance to begin to course correct. And correction is sorely needed.

According to the CBA, team owners are supposed to be held to higher standard than players. But Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder is still allowed to own his team despite the rampant sexual harassment that has taken place in the organization. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft received no punishment from the league after being charged with solicitation at a massage parlour. And the NFL didn’t even investigate the voyeurism scandal involving former Cowboys executive Rich Dalrymple, which alleged Dalrymple secretly recorded multiple cheerleaders while they changed their clothes and took upskirt photos of owner Jerry Jones’s daughter Charlotte.

And what about Watson’s former team?

In a recent civil lawsuit, the Houston Texans were accused of enabling Watson’s behavior. The Times reported the Texans provided Watson with non-disclosure agreements for his massage therapists to sign. After being implicated in that lawsuit, the team proactively settled with 30 women.

Owners and teams are as much to blame for the NFL’s culture of indifference around sexual assault as the players. On June 25, the last time he publicly addressed the matter, Watson reiterated his denial of wrongdoing: “Like I said, I never assaulted anyone, I never harassed anyone, I never disrespected anyone, I never forced anyone to do anything.”

When asked if he would do anything differently if he could go back in time, he said, “I don’t have any regrets. Like I said before, the things that are off the field right now, they came up, caught me by surprise because I never did the things that these people are alleging.”

There has been no remorse, contrition or apology, nor a reasonable explanation of why he needed upwards of 60 massage therapists over the course of a year and why more than 20 women filed civil lawsuits against him.

However, since being traded Watson has been rewarded more than punished.

The Browns circumvented the disciplinary process by backloading his fully guaranteed contract so missed game cheques will come from the $1.035 million dollars he’s owed this year and not the $46 million per year he’s owed for the next four.

Watson’s stature on the team also seems unaffected as he is still taking the majority of first team reps.

He took the field to cheers at training camp this week. Security had to hold fans back they were so excited to see him.

But that doesn’t mean the damaging effects of both his actions and the reactions to them aren’t felt in Cleveland and beyond.

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center expressed disappointment with Monday’s decision, saying “the 6-game suspension given dangerously mirrors the flaws in our criminal justice systems and sends a grave message to our communities. Far too often those in positions of power and celebrity who commit violence against others are not held accountable for their actions.”

What the Center’s staff spoke to is the existence of rape culture, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.”

Sadly, that sounds like the NFL to me.

It remains to be seen whether the handling of this case makes it more difficult to convince survivors to participate in these kangaroo court investigations in the future. Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing the women who sued Watson, said Monday on ESPN’s First Take that “one of the first questions that was asked to one of my clients [during the NFL’s investigation] was, ‘What were you wearing in the massage session?’”

There are no indications the NFL wants to believe victims or proactively protect women. Without those goals in place, the process can’t even be called a failure because it’s doing what it’s supposed to: lining the pockets of owners and redirecting the perception of blame.

The first paragraph of Judge Robinson’s conclusion might be the most damning and accurate assessment of the issue at hand: “The NFL may be a forward-facing organization but it is not a necessarily a forward-looking one,” she writes. “This is the NFL responding to violent conduct after a public outcry. So, it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct.”

In other words, the league is trying to levy a harsh suspension not because it’s demanded by its own guidelines and culture but because it’s being demanded by the public. The NFL is worried about perception because that’s what threatens their bottom line.

This isn’t just about policy, it is about Goodell setting a new precedent and trying to protect his legacy and the owners’ chequebooks.

While doing so, the very least he could do is also attempt to protect survivors.

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