The sexual misconduct allegations involving Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson and some two dozen women who were hired to give him a massage raise an uncomfortable question of local interest: What about New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who got a massage that led to charges of soliciting prostitution?
Yes, the facts in these cases are different. Watson is accused of initiating unwanted “sexualized behavior” with women who were hired to provide only a massage. Kraft was criminally charged with paying for a consensual sexual act, in the course of getting a massage. But Watson and Kraft do have something in common — the privilege and wealth to leverage the legal system to their greatest advantage. Both cases also showcase male entitlement and the football world’s acceptance of it. They also show the higher up you are in the power pyramid — team owner vs. pro athlete vs. everyone else — the less the rules apply to you.
The ruling that imposes a six-game suspension on Watson put the issue of Kraft’s ability to escape any consequences directly before the court of public opinion. In footnote 51, Sue L. Robinson, the independent arbiter, wrote: “I note in this regard that the Policy is equally applicable to players and team owners and management. The NFLPA (NFL Players Association) questions whether it is ‘fair and consistent’ to severely punish Mr. Watson for his nonviolent sexual conduct and not even charge various team owners who have been accused of similar or worse conduct.”
The footnote was generally interpreted as a reference to Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, whose team was fined $10 million by the NFL for fostering a toxic workplace, while specific allegations against Snyder were not addressed; and to Kraft, who in 2019 was charged with two misdemeanors for soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage spa. The charges against Kraft were dropped after a state appeals court ruled that video footage from a camera installed by police inside the Orchids of Asia spa in Jupiter, Fla., violated Kraft’s constitutional rights and could not be used as evidence.
Still, Kraft could have been disciplined under the NFL’s personal conduct policy but was not.
Because of the massage theme, Watson’s legal team was primed to use Kraft as an example of the NFL’s double standard. With her footnote, the independent arbiter gave that defense theory some credibility. And it’s true, NFL owners do seem immune from the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
However, like Kraft, Watson also had the resources to mobilize a high-powered legal team on his behalf. He has denied all the allegations against him. Two Texas grand juries have declined to issue criminal charges against him. Since then, he has also reached settlements with 23 of 24 women who filed civil lawsuits that charged him with lewd and coercive behavior. Despite all the controversy, he was traded to the Browns in March, in a deal worth $230 million.
The six-game suspension imposed against Watson has been denounced by the lawyer representing most of the victims, the National Organization of Women, and other advocates for sexual abuse victims. The NFL announced it is appealing the ruling and will seek a tougher penalty. At an owners meeting this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said an appeal was “the right thing to do.” It sure is. Watson’s six-game suspension is two more than Tom Brady got for allegedly deflating a football when he was playing for the Patriots.
Of course, it’s no surprise that who you are, who you know, and how much you can pay for legal advice affects your ability to defend yourself. Kraft’s high-powered legal team was able to raise a constitutional issue, saying the video that allegedly showed him engaged in a sex act violated his privacy rights. Without that video evidence, there was no case. But several women caught up in the sting were not so lucky. They were prosecuted.
What’s lacking from the NFL is any sort of consistency. It’s still grappling with how to send the message that it stands for certain values when it comes to players — without upsetting the team owners by applying the same standards to them.