Touching people for a living is inherently complex. It’s unfortunate, although predictable, that much of the public still conflates massage therapy with sex work. Licensed massage therapists have gone to accredited schools, studied anatomy and physiology, and are required to pass ethics classes. I’ve been practicing massage for over 25 years in the Boston area and have often experienced sexually inappropriate behavior from clients. Let me be clear: The moment you feel unsafe while giving a massage is chilling.
Instantly something doesn’t feel right. You notice your client’s different breathing patterns or that he is moving the sheet higher toward his groin, exposing himself, or touching your body. Thoughts flood your mind. You question yourself and wonder if you might be misinterpreting the situation. You feel simultaneously frightened, angry, and numb. Therapists are trained to end the massage and leave the room in such a situation, but this is hard to do, especially with a prominent professional athlete behind a closed door with no witnesses. Not only is our safety threatened, but our jobs are at risk too.
That’s why the 24 women who came forward to report Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for allegations of sexual harassment and assault deserve more support than they’ve been accorded by the NFL, the Houston Texans — and football fans. While Watson continues to deny all of the women’s charges, he has accepted the 11-game suspension and $5 million fine as part of a settlement with the NFL and its players association in order to move forward with his life and career. He is also to undergo evaluation by behavioral experts, participate in a treatment program, and, paradoxically, can continue receiving massages from club-approved therapists throughout the remainder of his career.
Soft-tissue treatment is imperative for professional athletes to stay healthy, and most teams hire therapists to work at their training facilities. It’s also common for pros to have a few other providers who they see regularly outside of the team’s training venues. The fact that all of the women who accused Watson of sexual assault and misconduct are massage therapists has been greatly undervalued and overlooked.
Ashley Solis, the first therapist to reveal her identity, said in an HBO interview that Watson told her not to be afraid when he exposed himself and placed her hand on his genitals. According to Solis, Watson then said, “I know you have a career to protect, and I know you don’t want anyone messing with it, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”
Consistent throughout the allegations is Watson’s request for groin work and insistence on being draped by only a small hand or “Gatorade” towel that he brought with him. The Texans provided Watson with a membership to a hotel where some of the massages took place as well as a nondisclosure agreement. One therapist who also filed suit against the Texans claims Watson ejaculated on her and then asked to schedule another appointment that afternoon. Watson has so far settled with 23 of the 24 women.
Athletes at Watson’s level decidedly know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a treatment room and understand the benefits of getting regular soft-tissue therapy. Watson booked at least 66 massage appointments, all with women, within 17 months. This is a predator’s way of disguising his behavior: Using professional massage therapists when, as a professional athlete, he knows the difference between sex work and massage therapy.
Perhaps divinely timed, the 2022 American Massage Therapy Association National Convention begins on Aug. 25 at the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland, right down the street from the Browns’ stadium. Therapists from all over the country will be discussing the Watson case and how to go forward from here. Even though the agreed-upon penalties are among the most severe in league history, missing only 11 games is simply not enough for 24 charges of sexual misconduct. Watson will return to play in the fall and if he wins, most fans will probably forget about the accusations of sexual misconduct made by 24 women massage therapists.
There is, however, an opportunity for some real progress next week in Cleveland. A member from the Browns’ owners, management, or even some players could — and should — walk down the street to the AMTA convention to express support and respect for the professional massage therapists needed in today’s sports. They should reassure our profession that we are valued employees of the teams and that the NFL will protect the safety and integrity of massage therapists and all women associated with the NFL — while convening a study into appropriate responses — and punishments — for substantiated allegations.
As someone who has been alone in a room with a powerful man, similar to those 24 massage therapists, it’s clear an 11-game suspension and a $5 million fine for a player whose guaranteed contract is worth $230 million isn’t a punishment at all.
Katie Adams is a massage therapist and educator practicing in Wellesley.