Deshaun Watson settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits against him this past week. And Daniel Snyder didn’t testify in a congressional hearing.
But the Browns star quarterback and the Commanders owner still find themselves in a heap of trouble.
Let’s take a closer look at what happened and what comes next with two stories that dominated headlines this past week while the rest of the NFL is out on summer vacation:
Watson won’t face any criminal charges over allegations that he sexually harassed and assaulted 24 massage therapists in the Houston area. And on Tuesday, Watson finally settled 20 of the lawsuits, nearly 15 months after they were filed.
But four of Watson’s accusers didn’t settle. And that could be bad news for him, not only in court but in the court of the NFL.
One of the four women who refused to settle is Ashley Solis, one of the first women to file suit against Watson. She may not be motivated to settle and may want to see her lawsuit through, which is scheduled to head to court in 2023.
The longer this drags on for Watson, the longer it will keep him off the field. Even if the NFL doesn’t hand down a punishment right away, it will likely put him on the commissioner’s exempt list to prevent him from playing.
Watson won’t be charged criminally, but he’s facing a significant punishment from the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The NFL already has proven with Ben Roethlisberger (six-game suspension reduced to four) and Ezekiel Elliott (six games) that it will impose punishment even if the legal system doesn’t. The NFL, tellingly, said in a statement on Tuesday that the settlements will have “no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.”
NFL investigator Lisa Friel, a former New York City sex crimes prosecutor, has interviewed witnesses and presented her evidence to the league and to Watson’s camp. Now the disciplinary hearing will be held Tuesday, according to ESPN. Watson’s legal team will argue that the NFL’s punishment was light on owners, including Robert Kraft, Jerry Richardson, and Snyder.
One big change in the process is that commissioner Roger Goodell no longer decides the initial punishment. Instead, overseeing the hearing is former US district judge Sue L. Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association. But Goodell or his designee would hear any appeal, meaning Goodell still has final say over the matter.
And this is not a good time to be on Goodell’s bad side. The NFL is getting dragged through the mud by Congress over its handling of the Commanders and their two-decade culture of misogyny and sexual harassment under Snyder. Considering that, and the mountain of accusations against Watson — 24 women accusing him of the same thing, and 66 massage therapists over a 17-month span, according to the New York Times — the NFL will almost certainly come down hard on Watson.
A yearlong suspension seems very possible. At minimum, it will be an unprecedented punishment. It will probably be a long time before we actually see Watson in a Browns uniform.
Snyder, meanwhile, thumbed his nose at Congress this past week by declining to appear at a hearing called by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Goodell instead took the heat, taking questions virtually from the committee for 2½ hours.
Snyder said he couldn’t attend because of a conflict with a team-related work event. Never mind the fact that Snyder’s punishment was supposed to include his removal from team functions — the work function that Snyder attended was a trip to the Cannes Film Festival in France. Snyder and Commanders executives were partying on Snyder’s yacht while Congress grilled Goodell on the Commanders’ workplace environment, and why the NFL didn’t produce a written report of the yearlong investigation.
Snyder perhaps would have been wise to participate in Wednesday’s hyper-partisan hearing, in which he would have at least faced friendly questioning from the Republican members of the committee.
Instead, he further angered chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who announced she will subpoena Snyder to testify in a deposition. Maloney also introduced two bills combating workplace misconduct in light of the Commanders’ situation, regarding the use of nondisclosure agreements, and misuse of professional images.
Snyder is trying to avoid accountability, but he’s making the situation worse for himself. A deposition will last several hours longer, and the full transcript of it may be released to the public. If he ignores it, he could be held in contempt of Congress. Snyder has made enough enemies that the committee appears determined to sit Snyder down and get him under oath.
“Thumbing your nose at Congress is not a good strategy,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said, via the Washington Post.
The NFL must be afraid of the notoriously litigious Snyder airing the league’s dirty laundry. Because it is baffling that Goodell and the owners continue to stand by Snyder, who has brought nothing but shame and disrepute to his team and the league in his nearly 25 years of ownership. He also, allegedly, was skimming profits from league partners for years.
Goodell said in the hearing that he doesn’t have the power to remove Snyder as owner, but he can at least initiate the process by formally recommending it to the NFL Management Council. It would then take a vote of 24 owners to remove Snyder.
It’s unlikely to happen, of course. Richardson, the former Panthers owner, voluntarily stepped down and cashed out in 2018. Snyder will almost certainly fight to the end.
Which means that, ultimately, Snyder probably won’t face much accountability.
But if Goodell wants to have any shred of credibility left, he has to release a written report from Beth Wilkinson. And Snyder truly has to be punished by the NFL, beyond the slap on the wrist he received last year.
TIMING A BIT OFF
Gronk’s exit leaves Bucs in a tight spot
Congratulations to Rob Gronkowski for walking away on his terms (again). Few players have put their body through more anguish and agony than Gronkowski did over 11 NFL seasons, between three back surgeries, a torn ACL, a broken forearm that required multiple surgeries, and the accumulation of all the bumps and bruises gained from playing a physical brand of football.
After the Super Bowl in 2019, he couldn’t walk for several weeks because of a nasty bruise on his leg. Last year, Gronkowski missed a significant chunk of the season after a defender cracked his ribs and punctured a lung.
Yet this marks the second time that Gronkowski’s retirement leaves his team in a bit of a lurch. In 2019, he retired two weeks into free agency, after all of the top tight ends had signed elsewhere, leaving the Patriots shorthanded at tight end for the season. The Patriots went with Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson, and Ryan Izzo that year, and had among the lowest production among all tight end units in the NFL.
Now Gronkowski’s retirement in mid-June leaves the Buccaneers thin at tight end, especially since they also let O.J. Howard leave in free agency. The Buccaneers have six tight ends on the roster, but they are short on experience and production.
The only real veteran in the group is Cameron Brate, an eight-year veteran with 33 career touchdowns. Brate is a decent No. 2 tight end who had 245 yards and four touchdowns last year, but he’s not a No. 1.
The only other tight end with experience is Codey McElroy, a third-year player who has spent most of his career on the practice squad. He has one career catch for 30 yards, accomplished in 2019.
The other tight ends on the roster are all rookies, and none highly touted. Cade Otton was a fourth-round pick out of Washington. Ko Kieft is a sixth-round pick out of Minnesota. Ben Beise is an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin River Falls, and J.J. Howland is an undrafted rookie out of Yale.
Gronkowski was a free agent and not technically part of the Buccaneers, but their group of tight ends suggests they were keeping the light on for Gronk and hoping he would be part of their team.
Instead, Tom Brady has one of the worst tight end units in the league again. For a team that will be one of the top Super Bowl contenders, the Buccaneers badly need reinforcements at tight end, and it’s tough to find them this time of year, after free agency and the draft are complete.
Don’t be surprised if Brady leans on his buddy during training camp or during the regular season and tries to get Gronkowski back for one more run. Gronk’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, already planted the seed.
“It would not surprise me if Tom Brady calls him during the season to come back and Rob answers the call,” Rosenhaus told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “This is just my opinion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Rob comes back during the season or next season.”
Tragic offseason for the league
This has been one of the worst offseasons in recent memory for tragedy striking away from the field, with three untimely deaths in the last few months.
Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins died in South Florida after being hit by a truck on a highway in April. Cardinals cornerback Jeff Gladney, a former first-round pick who had signed with the team in March and was looking to get his career back on track, was killed in a car accident in Dallas in late May.
And Ravens linebacker Jaylon Ferguson died late Tuesday night after being found unresponsive by police and medics in a home. Baltimore police said there were no signs of trauma and no foul play was suspected, but investigators have not ruled out an overdose, per ESPN.
Ferguson, a third-round pick in 2019, had just 4½ sacks in three seasons but was expected to take on a bigger role this year. He also holds the Football Bowl Subdivision record of 45 career sacks while at Louisiana Tech.
“His smile and uplifting attitude are two things I will never forget,” Ravens fullback Patrick Ricard said. “His personality was infectious throughout the locker room, and there wasn’t a person in the organization who didn’t have respect for him.”
Caserio causing problems?
As of Wednesday, the last day the NFLPA made data available, 228 of 262 (87 percent) draft picks had signed their rookie deals. But the signings are still trickling at a slow pace in the second and fourth rounds. And it seems that Texans general manager Nick Caserio, of all people, is somewhat responsible for it.
Only 16 of 32 picks in the second round had signed, and only one of the top 11 picks — Texans safety Jalen Pitre, the fifth player taken in the round. The issue appears to be that the Texans fully guaranteed Pitre the first three years of his rookie contract, or about $7 million of the $8.9 million he can earn over four years. Last year, only the top two picks in the second round got three fully guaranteed seasons. But Caserio and the Texans set the precedent with Pitre this year, and the other second-rounders want the same.
Only 25 of 38 picks in the fourth round had signed, and only three of the top 15 picks in the round. The issue appears to be with Texans running back Dameon Pierce, drafted second in the fourth round, who got an unprecedented $25,000 offseason workout bonus in the 2023 season. NFL teams find $25,000 in their couch cushions, but apparently it’s enough to get them to squabble with their draft picks. That little extra bonus that Caserio gave his rookie running back seems to be holding up the rest of the round.
It’s also noteworthy that all three quarterbacks drafted in the third round remain unsigned — the Falcons’ Desmond Ridder, the Titans’ Malik Willis, and the Panthers’ Matt Corral. Third-round picks under the collective bargaining agreement actually have a little wiggle room to negotiate for higher salaries in the later years of their contracts, and usually only quarterbacks are able to get it as sort of a “QB premium.”
A long NFL tradition is slowly fadingas only five teams are leaving their home cities for training camp this year. The Bills, Panthers, Chiefs, and Steelers are the only teams that still go to a college campus for training camp to live in the dorms, while the Cowboys make an annual trip to Oxnard, Calif. Though the college atmosphere may help with team bonding, holding training camp at the team facility just makes too much sense. It’s logistically easier, and for most teams at least, easier for the fans to attend … The Browns took a short field trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the end of the offseason program as a team bonding event, but star pass rusher Myles Garrett didn’t join his team. It wasn’t a protest, he just doesn’t want to visit the Hall until he is inducted in it. “Until I have my face in it, I don’t want to go,” Garrett, who has 58½ sacks in five seasons, said via the Akron Beacon Journal … Some coaches may be concerned about going into a season with an underachieving Mitchell Trubisky and an unproven Kenny Pickett at quarterback. But not the uber-positive Mike Tomlin, who is in quarterback purgatory for the first time as a head coach now that Ben Roethlisberger is retired. “I’m looking forward to the anxiety associated with that uncertainty,” Tomlin said on The Pivot podcast. “So it doesn’t matter who puts their hands underneath the center, as far as I’m concerned. But, with all that cool stuff being said, it’s scary. But exciting.” … Nice job by the Cardinals this past week, sending 241 high school students and 30 chaperone teachers on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. as part of the Civics Matters Arizona program. They flew the group to D.C. on the Cardinals’ team plane, and provided opportunities to visit landmarks and meet with elected officials … The NFL held its first-ever program in Africa this past week with football camps with several current players, plus other outreach in Ghana. “There’s over 100 players in the NFL from Africa — born in Africa [or] whose parents are first generation American — so there’s a tremendous talent pool on the continent that we as a league have not actively [pursued],” NFL International COO Damani Leech told ESPN. “The second is what’s happening broadly in Africa in terms of population growth projections, urbanization projections, availability of urban technology and broadband Wi-Fi. All of those things make Africa a [region] that in the next 25-30 years, we think, is going to be really powerful. We want to position the league to be successful in Africa.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.