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A Return From Scandal, but With Little Said About the Scandal

On Sunday morning, near the beginning of NFL Network’s four-hour “NFL GameDay Morning” studio show, host Rich Eisen teased an upcoming segment on the biggest news story of the day: Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson playing a regular-season N.F.L. game for the first time since January 2021.

“Look who’s back in the league. Look who’s back in Houston,” Eisen said. “It’s been 700 days since Deshaun Watson played a football game. We’ll have the latest on his return to the Browns, and society, when we come back.”

The coverage after the break said little about the reasons for Watson’s extended absence: a missed season and a subsequent 11-game suspension after accusations from more than two dozen women that he assaulted or harassed them during massage appointments.

An on-screen timeline mentioned “sexual misconduct allegations” in March 2021, and the length of the suspension issued in August, but did not give any details about the scope of the accusations or the findings that led to Watson’s discipline. The show then cut to a reporter at NRG Stadium in Houston, where the Browns would play the Texans, and the conversation turned to how long it would take for Watson to regain his Pro Bowl form as a quarterback.

The NFL Network report was typical of the way the league’s broadcast partners handled Watson’s return. Morning shows on ESPN and NFL Network in the hours leading up to Sunday games routinely attract hundreds of thousands of viewers, and afternoon games broadcast on CBS and Fox easily attract millions of viewers, with differences based on which regions see which games.

In the days leading up to the Browns-Texans game on CBS, and on Sunday, The New York Times watched shows to see how these broadcasters — who collectively pay the N.F.L. about $10 billion a season for the right to air its games — told the story of his return to the field after a barrage of similar accusations from women who said he turned massages sexual without their consent.

With a few exceptions, the coverage largely focused on Watson’s qualities as a player and his challenges rejoining the Browns offense, giving only basic details about the accusations against him.

Though some of Watson’s accusers have spoken publicly and most have detailed their experiences in lawsuits, barely any time was spent on recounting their stories of Watson exposing himself, touching them with his genitals or coercing sexual acts. Watson has denied the accusations against him and was not charged criminally.

NFL Network spokesman Alex Riethmiller said the network has aired detailed and critical coverage of Watson during the almost two years of the scandal. He said the network made its coverage plan for Watson’s return at a Nov. 10 summit attended by close to 50 employees. “We thought it would be wise to have a broader group discussion to gather opinions from employees around the media group,” he said, without giving details on what was decided.

Watson’s return, and the coverage of it, comes as the N.F.L. is under intense scrutiny for its treatment of women. The Washington Commanders are the subject of at least six open investigations into widespread sexual harassment and abuse in the organization, and this spring six attorneys general warned the N.F.L.’s head office to improve how it treats female employees.

Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman, said the N.F.L. provided “no direction” to its network partners, including NFL Network, on how to cover Watson’s return. Much of the coverage mirrored how the N.F.L., the Browns, the Texans and Watson himself wanted football fans to think about it: As a turning of the page, moving on from the serious accusations made against Watson to his new role as the Browns’ franchise quarterback. When NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reported last week that Watson was being reinstated, he concluded, “So that means it is officially over.”

Yet much about Watson’s situation remains unresolved. He still faces two lawsuits accusing him of lewd and coercive behavior in massage appointments, after settling 23 others this summer; he must continue to comply with the treatment program that was a condition of his reinstatement from his suspension; and the last time he directly addressed the accusations against him, in August, he insisted he was innocent and said the public hasn’t been interested in his side of the story.

While each network covered the occasion differently, they had much in common in what they left out. Other than an ESPN “Outside the Lines” segment that aired last week, it appeared that none of the key networks used footage during N.F.L. programming from either of the two news conferences given by Ashley Solis, the first licensed massage therapist to publicly accuse Watson of sexual misconduct. Also notably missing was mention that the Texans, the Browns’ opponent on Sunday, reached settlements with 30 of Watson’s accusers after The Times reported that the team had provided the venue for some of the appointments as well as a nondisclosure agreement that Watson gave to some of the women. Nor did the coverage detail the finding by the retired judge who oversaw Watson’s N.F.L. disciplinary hearing that Watson had engaged in “predatory” conduct that was “more egregious than any before reviewed by the N.F.L.”

Eliding the details of the accusations, especially on the day Watson returned from a suspension arising from them, can “render what has happened less serious,” said Meenakshi Gigi Durham, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa.

“It is critically important the way the media cover the story, and also the way that the institution itself, the N.F.L., the way they’re dealing with it,” said Durham, author of the book “MeToo: The Impact of Rape Culture in the Media.” She added, “Because the broader message that’s being sent about sexual assault and sexual violence in general sort of hinges on the way that it’s handled in public discourse.”

Watson made clear in the days before his return that he would not address the controversy directly. In his first news conference after being reinstated, he said that he had been instructed by his clinical and legal advisers only to answer football-related questions. The Browns’ official channels, including the team website and the team-sponsored radio show with Coach Kevin Stefanski, also stuck to football, referring to Watson’s suspension without any mention of why he was disciplined.

“The audience we serve certainly knows and understands the reason for his 11-game suspension,” said Peter John-Baptiste, a Browns spokesman.

For the N.F.L.’s broadcast partners, the entertainment purpose of game-day coverage butted up against the need to explain why Watson’s return was significant. The CBS telecast, which was shown only to viewers in the Houston and Cleveland areas, covered the accusations against Watson about 10 minutes before kickoff in a “First on the Field” segment. The complaints made against Watson were not detailed during the game itself.

Late in the game, the CBS play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes mentioned the “mixed emotions” of Browns fans as they reckoned with the “weightiness of the allegations with Watson.”

“We were conflicted, getting ready to prepare for this game, because you want to show empathy for the women impacted and affected by this,” added the color commentator Jay Feely, a former N.F.L. kicker. “You have to talk about football as well. And it’s a difficult situation for Deshaun Watson. He needs to rebuild his reputation and go about playing football while trying to do that as well.”

Dedes and Feely then mentioned that Watson had done charitable work during his time in Houston, and cameras flashed to a stadium suite full of his friends and family wearing jerseys bearing Watson’s No. 4, a visual that was also shown and described before the start of the game. A CBS spokeswoman declined to comment on the network’s approach to covering Watson’s return.

During the fourth quarter of the game on Sunday, CBS broadcasters discussed apprehension around Watson’s return to football. (The broadcast video has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)CreditCredit…CBS

ESPN and NFL Network provided news coverage in the days leading up to the game on shows like “SportsCenter” and “NFL Now,” which aired parts of Watson’s news conference and included live updates from reporters at the Browns headquarters in Berea, Ohio. Their Sunday studio shows, which each run a few hours, offered a different opportunity to discuss and contextualize major topics.

An NFL Network host, Andrew Siciliano, waved at this during a midweek news show. At the end of a segment about Watson in which Siciliano said, “I want to try to keep it to the field,” he added that the morning coverage that Sunday would have a conversation about the “bigger picture” of Watson’s return. While Sunday’s show included multiple live reports from NRG Stadium, the commentary about what Watson was returning from was limited to quips from Eisen, the show’s host.

“Well, the whole concept of ‘rusty’ in his life was Hardin,” Eisen said during a segment about how Watson might be rusty as a player. He was referring to Rusty Hardin, the defense attorney Watson hired when Solis filed the first lawsuit against him in March 2021.

During “NFL GameDay Morning” on NFL Network, a sideline reporter and studio hosts discussed Watson’s return and whether he would be “rusty.”CreditCredit…NFL Network

ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” aired the most detailed coverage on Sunday morning, an eight-minute segment in the show’s first hour. It included a timeline describing the accusations against Watson, reports from two insiders and an on-site reporter in Houston as well as a personal essay from host Sam Ponder, who referred to Watson as a friend but described the accusations against Watson as “he said, they all said.”

Ponder told The New York Times in a statement, “My goal wasn’t to absolve or condemn him, but to present the tension and complication of it all in a way that could bring some clarity to what fans are processing.”

The ESPN N.F.L. insider Adam Schefter drew criticism for a news story Sunday morning in which he quoted anonymous league sources describing Watson’s “progress” in his confidential treatment program. Schefter mentioned this reporting on-air Sunday, while his fellow insider, Chris Mortensen, focused on the role of three women — the Browns co-owner Dee Haslam and her two daughters — in deciding to trade for Watson despite the accusations against him.

Mortensen described the Haslam family’s discussions leading up to the trade as “a difficult process for them as a family.” An ESPN spokesperson said the show sought to address the multiple layers of Watson’s return, including information on the Browns’ thought process in pursuing Watson as their franchise quarterback.

ESPN had an eight-minute segment during “Sunday NFL Countdown” devoted to the return of Watson, which included discussion of the role of the women in the Haslam family, which owns the Browns, in signing Watson. (This video has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)CreditCredit…ESPN

By Monday morning, the turning of the page appeared complete, with footage of the Browns-Texans game absorbed into the regular day-after highlight carousel on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” show.

Later, the network aired postgame remarks from Browns receiver Amari Cooper. The legend at the bottom of the screen read: “On Deshaun Watson: ‘He has that great playmaking ability.’”

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