Deshaun Watson’s Paltry Suspension Should Be a Call To Arms

Photo credit: USA Today

So after months of debate, a massive investigation, a three day hearing and 24 – repeat TWENTY-FOUR – civil suits alleging sexual harassment and assault by Deshaun Watson, NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson concluded in 15 pages that Watson’s conduct deserved only a paltry 6 game suspension. Robinson’s justification for this penalty was a lack of sufficient notice to Watson that non-violent sexual assault (is there such a thing?) would result in a more stringent penalty. The decision has been publicly released.

Robinson specifically found that the NFL was able to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy, which provides:

Everyone who is part of the league must refrain from ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in’ the NFL. ” (original emphasis)

No criminal or civil conviction is required for discipline under the Policy. The Policy further elaborates that:

“We must endeavor at all times to be people of high character; we must show respect for others
inside and outside our workplace; and we must strive to conduct ourselves in ways that favorably reflect on ourselves, our teams, the communities we represent, and the NFL.”

In terms of showing respect, a New York Times investigation determined that Watson had booked massage appointments with 66 different women from fall 2019 to spring 2021. The sheer volume of complaints and the striking similarity of the allegations may or may not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, but in the court of common sense Watson stands convicted of being a serial sexual predator.

What is more troubling, however, is that Robinson concluded that Watson violated the Policy in three specific ways: 1) committing sexual assault; 2) engaging in conduct posing a danger to another’s safety and well-being and 3) acting in a way that compromises the integrity of the NFL. Despite this, and even while noting that there were aggravating factors – Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse”(!) and failure to notify the NFL promptly upon being sued, as required by the Policy, Robinson STILL refused to impose a more significant penalty. This is especially incomprehensible because Robinson acknowledged the traumatic impact the assaults had upon the four (of 22) therapists who provided testimony. One woman sought counseling and is having difficulty working. Another was “frustrated, upset and embarrassed”. A third experienced depression and sleeplessness and had to change her professional practices. Another is seriously considering leaving the field of massage therapy completely. And Watson gets the proverbial slap on the wrist. What about the other 18???

The actions of the Browns and the Texans franchises in this travesty also should not be overlooked. The landmark, guaranteed contract the Cleveland Browns gave Watson is a stain on the franchise that can never be scoured away, and in and of itself does NOT reflect favorably on anything. The Browns, seeking to escape mediocrity, clearly value Watson’s elite athletic abilities over adherence to any moral code. The guaranteed money and carefully drafted agreement insured Watson would suffer minimal financial ramifications in anticipation of the disciplinary ruling. In fact, because Robinson chose not to impose any fine, Watson will only lose 6 game checks of $57,500 – or a paltry $345,000. There’s that word again. Paltry. It is defined as “trivial”, “meager” or “measly” by Webster’s Dictionary. Unfortunately, that is how the sports industry, from Hockey Canada to USA Gymnastics and beyond has historically viewed disrespect for and even physical assault upon women and girls.

It is long past time for this to change. If nothing else, this ridiculously minimal punishment should serve as a call to arms for EVERYONE, whatever their gender identification, to insist that the NFL live up to the lofty principles enunciated in the Personal Conduct Policy. Watson’s egregious conduct demands far more than a six game suspension. He should never wear an NFL uniform again. Sponsors should be fleeing from the Browns in droves. FirstEnergy Corp., are you listening? Fans should be speeding up the 90 to embrace the Bills, rather than support an ownership group which has made the Montreal Canadiens former administration look empathetic by comparison. Vote with your wallets, people. It is the only way to move the needle on universal respect and common decency.

One final note: the Houston Texans negotiated settlements with 30 women following allegations the team facilitated Watson’s conduct by providing him with NDAs and even supplying the venue where several of the incidents occurred. The NFL has yet to address this, but one would hope that aiding and abetting (sex trafficking?) would also constitute a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy. Recent history would seem to suggest otherwise.

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Helen A. “Nellie” Drew is an expert in sports law, including professional and amateur sports issues ranging from NCAA compliance and Title IX matters to facility construction, discipline of professional athletes, collective bargaining and franchise issues. Drew formerly served as an officer and in-house counsel to the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League, after previously working as outside counsel to the Sabres and the NHL. Among her more interesting experiences were assisting former USSR superstar Alexander Mogilny in obtaining asylum status in the U.S. and working on multiple NHL expansions, including San Jose, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay.
Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. She is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports.

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