Hold your applause for the NFL’s appeal of a six-game suspension imposed by an independent arbiter against Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by 24 women of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
Contesting the light punishment rendered by Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge who adjudicated Watson’s hearing, isn’t a sign that the NFL now takes allegations of sexual misconduct by its players seriously. This is a public relations move, not an epiphany.
The league can’t salvage its credibility with women. It has none.
In her 16-page report, Robinson wrote that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women” during massages. League officials wanted Watson suspended for a year. Yet it was the NFL’s own mishandling of prior cases of “domestic or gendered violence and sexual acts,” as Robinson called them, that compelled her to stick with league precedent for a six-game suspension.
Other players have received far harsher punishments for violating the league’s substance use policy.
“The NFL may be a ‘forward-facing’ organization, but it is not necessarily a forward-looking one,” Robinson wrote. “Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct.”
Now Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, is again responding to public outcry over Watson’s paltry suspension.
Watson, who wasn’t criminally charged, has settled all but one of the cases against him out of court. Given his conduct, even a one-year suspension is too generous. He should be permanently booted from the league.
Of course, that’s unlikely. If the league suspends Watson for a year, the NFL Players Association will sue, and the case would probably face a slog through the courts. What the league needs, and what the players’ union should agree to, is a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence and sexual misconduct.
It’s been eight years since Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back, received a two-game suspension after he was charged with assaulting his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Only months later, when video of Rice knocking the woman unconscious and dragging her out of the elevator went viral, did Rice’s NFL career effectively end.
An independent inquiry concluded that while NFL officials “possessed substantial information suggesting a serious event had occurred” involving Rice, they chose to forgo a more extensive investigation of the incident.
Widespread outrage pushed Goodell to shore up the league’s personal conduct policy and launch the “No More” campaign with players denouncing violence against women in public service announcements. It was as performative as spray painting “End Racism” in stadium end zones after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Such gestures mute public anger while Goodell’s focus remains the same: protecting the game’s brand above all else. That’s exactly what the owners pay him to do.
This has been disastrous for women. The NFL’s odious culture dictates that even evidence that a player has physically or sexually assaulted a woman — or, in Watson’s case, multiple women — is not instantly disqualifying. Suspend Watson, who is 26, for a season and he’ll still return in the prime of his career. The women he assaulted will carry what he did to them for the rest of their lives.
It doesn’t help when owners themselves engage in misogynistic behavior. Congress has done more than the league itself to investigate the Washington Commanders’ toxic culture fostered by Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner. Numerous women affiliated with the team have accused Snyder of sexual harassment and misconduct. In 2009, Snyder paid a $1.6 million settlement to a woman who accused him of groping her, attempting to remove her clothes, and harassing her for sex.
That’s the league Goodell oversees. But given the billions the NFL rakes in, the disgusting misdeeds of men like Snyder and Watson won’t have the owners clamoring for systemic changes — or a change at the top — anytime soon.
In a statement after Watson’s suspension, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who own the Browns, said, “We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
You know who else supports Watson? Browns fans. He’s considered one of the NFL’s stars and has the record-breaking contract to prove it. In him, all they can see is a chance for gridiron glory. After his suspension was announced, Watson was greeted with cheers at the team’s training camp near Cleveland. He also signed autographs, including on the back of a young fan wearing a Watson jersey.
I shudder to think what his fans were cheering for.