NFL has only itself to blame for Deshaun Watson’s light punishment

OPINION: The league’s historically lax and haphazard approach in such cases is what ultimately led a retired judge to deliver a six-game suspension to the Cleveland quarterback, who faced 24 civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct.

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during Cleveland Browns training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on July 30, 2022 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/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.

You ever read a 16-page ruling from a retired federal judge who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the players’ union to discipline a quarterback who cyber-hunted dozens of massage therapists on Instagram to harass them with unwanted sexual contact?

Me either, until Monday.

That’s when we got the ruling on Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson. The NFL had recommended an indefinite suspension, with conditions attached to his reinstatement. But disciplinary officer Sue Robinson said, nah, six games are sufficient—plus Watson must refrain from freelance hires and stick to team-approved, team-directed massage therapists for the duration of his career. 

Sounds like a win for Watson. Until you actually read the report.

Like others following this case, I had my own thoughts on an appropriate suspension (one season or 12 games minimum). I also know folks who thought a season was way too much, despite the 24 civil lawsuits Watson faced (with 23 settlements). Some Watson supporters reportedly believe even a six-game penalty is six games too long.

Before Robinson released her ruling, the NFL Players Association stated it wouldn’t appeal and it urged the NFL to do likewise. That seemed oddly bold, considering the general consensus and public outcry that Watson deserved a lengthy hiatus. But, yes, that sounded right: Both parties should accept the decision, no matter what, and move on. I still feel that way. 

If a half-dozen games seem inadequate, blame the NFL—not Robinson. 

The league should blame itself, too, for its historically lax and haphazard approach in such cases. 

His suspension could’ve been worse, but not the takedown. Robinson rips Watson a new one in concluding that 1) he indeed “engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL)” against four therapists identified in the league’s 215-page investigative report; 2) his “conduct posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person;” and 3) the “predatory conduct cast a negative light on the League and its players.” 

In other words, he’s guilty as charged, a first-degree violator of the league’s personal conduct policy. 

So why only six games? Because as Robinson wrote in her decision, she was bound “by standards of fairness and consistency of treatment.” 

The NFL over-reached in requesting an indefinite ban, compared to 32 previous suspensions it issued under the personal conduct policy since 2015. The longest was 10 games for Jarron Jones (after a guilty plea to domestic violence). Kareem Hunt was suspended for eight games after an assault caught on video. Multiple players have received six-game suspensions for domestic violence or sexual assault, including Ezekiel Elliott, Josh Brown, Derrius Guice and Jarran Reed. 

“While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players,” Robinson wrote. “…Here, the NFL is attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to—and consistency of consequence for—those in the NFL subject to the Policy.”

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during the Cleveland Browns mandatory minicamp at FirstEnergy Stadium on June 16, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

The union was willing to ride and die with Robinson’s ruling—the first major test of a new process adopted in March 2020—because an independent arbitrator is preferable to commissioner Roger Goodell as judge, jury and executioner. Watson previously faced two grand juries in Texas and wasn’t indicted on criminal charges; the union argues that Robinson’s deliberation should end matters.

“(She) held a full and fair hearing, has read thousands of pages of investigative documents and reviewed arguments from both sides impartially,” the NFLPA said prior to the ruling. “Every player, owner, business partner and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be tarnished based on the whims of the League office.”

Treating all unwanted sexual contact alike, regardless of physical violence, is a whim. Punishing players for sexual misconduct while owners like Dan Snyder, Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones escape repercussions is a whim. Letting public sentiment dictate the length of suspensions once again (Ray Rice initially got two games for knocking out his fiancé before Goodell arbitrarily upped it to indefinite) is a whim.

The league has reserved its right to appeal Robinson’s ruling and let Goodell decide Watson’s punishment. But both sides wanted to remove the commissioner from that role in personal conduct cases, which led to the new process of an independent disciplinary officer. 

After bungling so many cases in its kangaroo court, the NFL should live with the verdict from this trained and experienced jurist. Robinson explains why in her carefully considered, thoughtfully delivered ruling. 

For those who believe the suspension is insufficient and don’t have time to read, I can sum up the 16-page report:

It’s the NFL’s fault.


Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron

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