Deshaun Watson’s $230 million contract just makes a bad situation worse

OPINION: Several teams were clamoring to hire the new Cleveland Browns quarterback, who still faces civil lawsuits from 22 women alleging sexual misconduct. His contract was even structured to limit his salary loss in case he's hit with a league suspension.

Deshaun Watson
(Credit: Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Regardless of clients’ guilt or innocence, attorneys are obliged to provide a vigorous and competent defense, actively fighting for the accused’s freedom while not judging or making moral decisions. 

NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson has one of the best attorneys that money can buy in Rusty Hardin, a particular favorite among star athletes. He shepherded Watson through a grand jury process that resulted in no criminal charges tied to allegations of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.

Watson’s agent is no slouch either, a true ride-or-die homey. 

When the grand jury declined to indict Watson, his agent, David Mulugheta, tweeted “Keep the same energy” to those who dare believe any of the 22 women who allege Watson committed sexual harassment and/or assault. He would classify Watson’s case as “he said vs. she said.” Actually, it’s “he said vs. she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-she-said.” (That’s 22 if you’re counting.) 

But Mulugheta wasn’t finished proving his loyalty. He negotiated an NFL-record contract—$230 million guaranteed—between Watson and the Cleveland Browns, who say they traded for him after “extensive investigative, legal, and reference work over the past several months.” Cleveland reached its conclusion without speaking to the women or their attorney.

That’s like drawing a full picture with your eyes closed and hands tied behind your back.   

Mulugheta and the Browns are playing blind, but they’re no dummies. They know the NFL can issue its own punishment without backup from the criminal justice system. Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t charged in 2010 after a 20-year college student said he sexually assaulted her in a bar, but the NFL suspended him for six games (later cut to four). In 2017, Dallas Cowboys halfback Ezekiel Elliott became the second player suspended under the league’s personal conduct policy, despite not being charged with a crime; his ex-girlfriend had accused him of domestic violence.

Deshaun Watson
(Credit: Getty Images)

I’m not a betting man, but here’s a good wager for those who indulge: Watson will be suspended at some point. 

He knows it, and Mulugheta and the Browns know, too. The proof is in the contract, making this creepy deal even slimier. Watson’s base salary for 2022 will be a mere $1 million, meaning he’ll forfeit roughly $55,555 per game if suspended. That’s tip money for someone getting $230 million.

Granted, not everyone sees a problem with this. In addition to Hardin and Mulugheta, Watson has a number of defenders in the public space. They don’t think he’s guilty of anything except being targeted by lying, gold-digging women. They don’t care that Watson sought out random massage therapists on Instagram, despite being a star athlete. They aren’t bothered by similarities in the accusers’ claims, believing instead 18 therapists who say the QB was a perfect client (though both could be true). 

Several teams lined up to vie for Watson’s services after the grand jury’s decision. They were undeterred once the threat of criminal charges had passed, leaving Watson free to resume his career. That’s the end of the story in one sense. Whether 22 or 222 women say he’s a creep, some observers only go on what can be proved, the legal standard. 

Watson and his team could’ve just accepted that victory and braced for the NFL decree. But, no, they got greedy, trying to keep his money out of reach with the low base salary this year. 

The league should outsmart them. Not only would it send a clear message, but it would also help compensate for the wildly inconsistent—and often inadequate—penalties typically issued for offenses against women.

Watson still faces 22 civil suits, and the NFL investigation isn’t expected to conclude before those legal matters are resolved. There should be no rush on the league’s part. In fact, I can envision a long and lengthy probe, entailing interviews with all the plaintiffs and individuals they spoke with contemporaneously. 

Coordinating those interviews—plus second and third sit-downs, if necessary—is complicated and time-consuming. No way they’re done prior to the season, so let Watson open with his new team in September. Let him continue to play, maybe even leading the Browns to the playoffs. 

Then, wrap up after the season ends and suspend him for 2023. 

If Calvin Ridley can miss a season for gambling, why can’t Watson miss a season? This way, the penalty will hit Watson harder in the pocket. The Browns will feel it more, too, facing an interruption to the Watson era, not just a postponement.

Sounds like the only chance for a small win in a big-loss situation.

Deron Snyder

An award-winning columnist and a principal of BlackDoor Ventures, Inc., Deron Snyder is a veteran journalist, stratcomm professional, author, and adjunct professor. A native of Brooklyn and an Alpha from H.U.-You Know, he resides in metropolitan DC with his wife, Vanessa, mother of their daughters, Sierra and Sequoia. To learn more, please visit

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!