Deshaun Watson’s Case Tests the N.F.L.’s Resolve, and its Values

Twenty-two accusers. No, this just in, make that 23. Wait, now it’s 24.

Should the N.F.L. suspend Deshaun Watson, the quarterback who got a $230 million deal from the Cleveland Browns even though he has been accused of harassment and assault by a steadily growing list of female massage therapists?

Sure, the league could do that, and given the slop bucket of allegations, it wouldn’t be surprising if it did. But should it?

If you go on Browns message boards, scroll through Twitter or just talk to some women, a lot of people are making the case that Watson, the former Houston Texans quarterback, should never throw an N.F.L. pass again.

A suspension for a set number of games this coming season, their thinking goes, is not enough. Nor is a season, or even two, off. If America’s most popular sports league is to honor its pledge to stand behind women and victims of abuse, Watson needs to be banned.

Watson “should not be playing in the league at all,” says Brenda Tracy, a prominent victims’ rights advocate who travels the country counseling college and professional athletes to stand against harassment and abuse. “It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand the lengths these leagues will go to protect these men. He needs to go.”

Sure, such a move would be unprecedented. Watson vigorously proclaims his innocence, particularly now that two Texas grand juries have decided against proceeding with criminal charges — thought that’s not rare in cases where women make sexual harassment claims.

If banned, he would surely press the league for reinstatement. Maybe even sue. Let him try.

A signal would have been sent: The N.F.L. is no longer willing to put the games and the myth and the money ahead of absolutely everything.

I write this with a queasy stomach. I’m still digesting the latest revelations about Watson unearthed by The New York Times’s Jenny Vrentas, whose reporting this week showed that the 26-year-old quarterback engaged in more questionable behavior than anybody realized.

Watson, we now know, visited at least 66 female massage therapists over 17 months, from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2021. Among them were strangers he tracked down on Instagram and women who worked at a spa on the side of a highway.

Keenly aware that their bodies are their lifeblood, top N.F.L. players typically find no more than a few experts to give limb-loosening massages.

Having 66 masseurs is no crime, but it is, in fact, a galaxy away from the norm.

Of the 66, some stood up for Watson, saying publicly that he did nothing wrong. But last week, two more women pressed claims in civil court, bringing the count of current accusers to 24. Some women who massaged Watson did not called a lawyer or the police after, but even they told The Times that Watson seemed to be looking for more than a relief from soreness. The sheer numbers are head-spinning, and the portrayals of Watson’s aggression and entitlement are chilling.

The woman who filed the most recent suit claimed that Watson masturbated during a massage, ending in a way that satisfied him and demeaned her.

A woman who decided not to sue or complain to the police told Vrentas that Watson made repeated requests for sex acts during the massage, including “begging” her to put her mouth on his penis.

“I specifically had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” the woman said.

Watson and his well-connected legal team have continually denied any wrongdoing. They admit sex occurred on three occasions, but only after the massages, and always at the women’s instigation. “I understand the seriousness of the allegations,” Watson said at a news conference in March. “I’ve never assaulted a single woman. I’ve never disrespected any woman.”

His claims of innocence got a boost when the Browns, a once-proud team now so desperate for a championship that it has lost any dignity, gave him a better deal than those of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson: $230 million, every penny reportedly guaranteed.

Upon completion of the N.F.L.’s investigation, Watson’s discipline will be decided by Commissioner Roger Goodell.Credit…Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

Meantime, N.F.L. investigators are looking into the allegations and Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to decide soon on Watson’s possible punishment. The history is not encouraging.

In 2014, Goodell, under pressure after video evidence was published, admitted mishandling the Ray Rice domestic abuse case and vowed to do better. But what has changed other than empty promises and marketing campaigns aimed at wooing female fans?

Understand the N.F.L.’s Recent Controversies

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A wave of scrutiny. The most popular sports league in America is facing criticism and legal issues on several fronts, ranging from discrimination to athletes’ injuries. Here’s a look at some of the recent controversies confronting the N.F.L., its executives and teams:

Deshaun Watson’s troubling behavior. After several women said the football star had harassed or assaulted them during massage appointments, two grand juries in Texas declined to criminally charge the football star, who recently signed a contract to play with the Cleveland Browns. But a Times investigation showed that Mr. Watson may have engaged in more questionable behavior than previously known.

Jon Gruden’s lawsuit. In 2021, Mr. Gruden stepped down as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after the media reported on emails in which he made homophobic, misogynistic and racist remarks. He later filed a lawsuit against the league, claiming that it had intentionally leaked the emails and sought to destroy his career. In May 2022, a judge denied the league’s motions to dismiss the suit and to compel a closed-door arbitration.

Allegations of potential fraud. A former team executive for the Washington Commanders claimed that the team skimmed revenue from ticket sales meant to be shared with the rest of the N.F.L. and withheld security deposits from fans. The franchise has sent 102 pages of documents rebutting the claims to the Federal Trade Commission.

Sexual harassment claims. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Commanders, is the subject of an N.F.L. inquiry after sexual harassment allegations were made against him by former employees. In July, the league fined the franchise $10 million after an investigation into allegations of harassment in the team’s front office.

Racial descrimination lawsuit. The former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black and Hispanic, sued the N.F.L. and its 32 teams for racial descrimination in their hiring practices. Mr. Flores was later hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive assistant coach. Steve Wilks and Ray Horton, two Black former coaches, have joined the ongoing lawsuit.

A demoralizing culture for women. After the 2014 Ray Rice scandal, the N.F.L. stepped up its efforts to hire and promote women. But more than 30 former staff members interviewed by The Times described a stifling corporate culture that has left many women feeling pushed aside. Six attorneys general warned the league to address the problems or it could face an investigation.

The fallout from brain injuries. Recent violence and deaths by suicide have again highlighted the league’s longtime issues with C.T.E., a brain disease found in a number of deceased players. In addition to a nearly $1 billion settlement, the N.F.L. agreed to stop using race-based methods in evaluating dementia claims.

In 2018, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt, then one of the most promising running backs in football, was videotaped shoving a woman to the ground and kicking her. The N.F.L. suspended Hunt for eight games even though the woman did not press charges. Guess who signed Hunt next after Kansas City sent him packing.

The Cleveland Browns did. Clearly, half-season suspensions send no real message.

It is hard to see how anyone can take the N.F.L. seriously when it says it cares about women and the behavior of everyone associated with the league. Not after its meek responses to Rice and Hunt. Not after it let Antonio Brown play for Tampa Bay and star in the 2021 Super Bowl as he faced accusations of sexual harassment and a lawsuit accusing him of rape. Not when the league fails to appropriately punish the Washington Commanders, a team riddled with harassment complaints that have even ensnared team owner Daniel Snyder.

The league needs to send the most potent message it can that sexual misconduct won’t be tolerated.

I know banishment might sound to some like a radical, overly harsh punishment. A significant portion of the N.F.L. fan base says Watson shouldn’t be punished at all. Innocent until proven guilty, say these apologists, part of the club who care more about bread-and-circus entertainment than doing the right thing.

But the N.F.L. can do as it pleases.

Imagine that Watson managed a car dealership. Imagine his bosses found out he faced 24 civil suits alleging sexual misconduct. How long would he have a job?

Imagine Watson were a journeyman N.F.L. practice player whom few had ever heard of. Would he be getting second chances from teams and the league? No. Journeymen do not get second chances. It’s different for stars (unless you’re a star who kneels during the national anthem and leads the protest against police abuse of Black people).

If you really want to imagine something, imagine you’re a massage therapist who trusted a wealthy, famous client you’d never met, and ended up so hurt and humiliated that you quit the work forever, as one of Watson’s accusers did. Maybe that’s all the imagining you need to do.

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