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Deshaun Watson and the NFL’s disdain for accountability

A football field with the National Football League (NFL) logo on it. NFL Quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended by the football league on Aug. 18 for 11 games and was fined $5 million. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Starting in March 2021, NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson was sued by 24 women who he hired for various personal services, including massages and physical therapy. All 24 women accused Watson of assault in civil lawsuits, with multiple women also alleging sexual misconduct against Watson. Watson settled with 23 out of 24 of these women, and after slight deliberation, no criminal charges were filed.

Goodell told news outlets that a year-long suspension of Watson was “the right thing to do” but has been silent on this promise since Watson’s 11 game sentence was handed down on Aug. 18. The punishment still allows him to play in five regular season games (reinstatement would occur for Week 13) and in all playoff games if the Cleveland Browns reach the postseason. Instead, Goodell told reporters, “Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL.”

However, Watson is still claiming his innocence at press conferences and in interviews. He told the press that he is taking accountability for his actions, but followed it up with, “I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I’m continuing to stand on that.” He even told reporters that he has “no regrets.”

This is forcing the question: Does the NFL care more about good press or doing the actual work that needs to be done? It’s clear that Watson isn’t truly sorry if he continues to deny these allegations. The NFL doesn’t want to engage in anything “messy”: anything that would cause a riot from fans who don’t want to see their new quarterback miss an entire season or more, anything that would lead to a financial loss. Morality takes a backseat in this association.

It should be appalling that Watson will get to play during the 2022 season. It should be appalling that Watson has to pay a fee of $5 million, which is only a tiny fraction of his multi-million dollar salary. However, if you look at the other punishments given to NFL players with incidences of violence against women, you’ll too quickly realize that Watson’s “punishment” is just the status quo in the NFL. The minimum punishment is handed down to these athletes, and once the suspension concludes, the entire incident is seemingly forgotten by the association.

Once it was announced that Watson would not face criminal charges, teams scrambled to get a trade offer together that his previous team, the Houston Texans, would be satisfied with. Some of these teams included the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks. The fact that these teams took no time to consider Watson’s actions just goes to show how the NFL enables these players. Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Browns, said to reporters, “I think it’s important to remember: Deshaun is 26 years old, okay? And he’s a high-level NFL quarterback.” The owners of his own team can’t even steer themselves away from excuses.

The Browns reached an agreement with the Texans, signing Watson to a record-breaking five-year, $230 million dollar contract. Here’s the worst part: his base salary for 2022 is just $1 million, which means that he will only lose $345,000 of his salary due to the suspension. Not only was Watson awarded with one of the largest contracts in NFL history, but it was also crafted in a way in which his suspension would not cause him to take a large financial hit. 

The NFL created a massive media circus surrounding Watson’s initial six-game suspension in an effort to take a picture of the ‘new’ NFL: an organization that “cracks down” on any type of crime against women. Goodell initially tried to give this statement in 2014 after Ray Rice was suspended, in 2016 after Josh Brown was released by the Giants and now in 2022, during Watson’s scandal. All three comments came after a domestic violence issue with an NFL player. Goodell’s insistence on a new punishment for Watson seemed to be an attempt to turn the tide of lesser-than-adequate punishments against men (examples including Ray Rice, Ezekiel Elliot and Ben Roethlisberger).

The issue with the NFL’s inability to give a longer suspension to Watson is multifaceted. The NFL is in no way allergic to giving full season suspensions; many players have been subjected to a one or multiple season suspension, but many have been in the case of drugs, with examples including Randy Gregory, Darren Waller and Josh Gordon.

Atlanta Falcons Wide Receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended indefinitely through at least the conclusion of the 2022 season for betting on games, with Goodell telling media outlets, “There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success — and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league — than upholding the integrity of the game.” The NFL seems to find drug and betting punishments easier to hand down because they impact the “integrity” of the game, and I do find those offenses to be necessary of consequences. But, what message are you giving by saying that domestic violence doesn’t affect the integrity of this game? What message are you giving by rewarding these players with multi million dollar contracts and legal protection so strong that they’ll never face punishment? It’s clear, cut, and dry: a message of misogyny.  

The conclusion here is simple: Deshaun Watson has gotten off easy, and he isn’t the first. Unfortunately, he also won’t be the last. The NFL cannot try to craft the narrative that they stand up for women when they have fostered a culture that allows for short suspensions and a lack of acknowledgement. While suspensions concerning the integrity of football are prioritized, suspensions concerning the integrity of the players themselves are pushed to the back.

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