[CW: This article discusses sexual violence and predatory behavior.]
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A star NFL player is facing multiple counts of sexual assault/harassment, casting doubt on his future with the league but by no means ending his career. This time, the offender is Houston Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, who at the time of this writing has a staggering 22 cases of sexual misconduct leveled against him, with new cases becoming public as recently as April 5. I won’t go into explicit details here, but I’d encourage anyone unaware to examine how Watson repeatedly assaulted massage therapists during his time in the NFL. The case, like many in the NFL’s history, is horrific and appears to show serial predatory behavior on Watson’s part. In the face of so many accusations, the question I will be examining is not one of Watson’s guilt. Another, more uncertain question looms: What is the NFL going to do about Deshaun Watson?
I’ll start in a place I wish wasn’t relevant to this conversation, but has proven a deciding factor in the fates of many NFL careers marred by misconduct: Watson’s talent. Deshaun Watson is an extremely skilled NFL quarterback. He’s arguably one of the five most gifted people in the world at the single most important position in football, making him an extremely valuable on-field asset. Unless you have someone who has received MVP votes in the past, your team would be better at football with Deshaun Watson on it.
Why does this matter? Because NFL front offices generally make two considerations in signing so-called “problem guys” to their teams. The first and most obvious one is “Would this player potentially make our team better?” The second, a more nuanced inquiry, is “Is the team’s improvement going to be worth the PR hit we’ll take from signing this guy?” Note that this is not “Is this right?” Not “Has this guy proven he deserves a second chance?” Rather, it’s a question with a calculated risk and reward, separate from any discernible ideology or code other than that of team and league self-interest.
That doesn’t mean Watson won’t be punished—far from it. The NFL has a family friendly image to maintain, and the “football is family” commercials don’t work quite the same way when the smiling player on the screen is a known serial predator. There are no perfect comps, but while the longest suspension for gendered violence was Greg Hardy’s ten-game ban, I think Deshaun Watson will probably be suspended from the league for somewhere around the length of one season due to the mountain of accusations against him. He might even be cut by the Texans entirely. Roger Goodell will give a scripted speech about the league taking steps to improve its relationship with women. Fans, even cynical ones like myself, will want to see Goodell’s statement as genuine. After all, we’ve made great strides in very recent history! The Me Too Movement surely changed perspectives on what’s acceptable and made organizations like the NFL reflect on their actions. Right?
But then the world will keep on turning. A year will pass. Fans will move on to the next Mahomes highlight, some dumb thing Gronk said or another rabid Bills fan subjecting themself to serious bodily harm while intoxicated enough to feel immortal. Football will be played, teams will win and lose, and Deshaun Watson’s abuses will slowly fade from public memory into just another offseason story. When he eventually returns to play or signs with a new team, the league will roll out the second chance bandwagon, highlighting Watson’s charity work and his former role as a poster child for off field contributions. Watson will repeatedly profess his commitment to reshaping himself as a man and learning from his horrific mistakes. He might be sincere. He might be full of crap. Either way, by the time he suits up for opening day in 2022, the fans of whatever team he’s playing for will have convinced themselves he’s a changed man. Me Too didn’t alter the thought processes of the men running the NFL. It only scared them into trying a little harder to cover up their blatant immorality.
I can’t tell you what Deshaun Watson’s punishment should be beyond a temporary suspension, which he already seems likely to receive. I don’t know all the facts, and even if I did, I know that I’m not in any position to deem him worthy of a second chance or not. What I can condemn is the NFL’s decision-making process when it comes to player misconduct. I can condemn the league treating matters of abuse, assault and worse as business decisions rather than questions of character. If football is family, then act like a family. Teach your sons to respect women, because cases like Watson’s show the consequences of handing abusive men wealth and status without impressing upon them how that status can be used to hurt people. Handing out suspensions doesn’t serve that purpose. And what’s worse, that punishment is going to be based just as much on Watson’s talent as it is on his conduct. The fact that he’ll have been reprimanded already will give whatever team brings Watson in as their starter in 2022 plausible deniability that they really care about the character of the man leading their team, that they couldn’t do anything more than what the league has. As if they wouldn’t let Hannibal Lecter suit up if he could throw touchdowns. Punishment is codified to serve the league image alone, but it’s clear that the NFL needs to go beyond that, not only suspending players who engage in gendered violence, but also educating teams on consequences and seriously attempting to change a toxic leagewide culture with regards to gender.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe a case against a player of Watson’s profile will actually convince the league to take proactive measures to educate their players about sexual violence and other issues of abuse. But I doubt it. Because if players [CW: the links are graphic] beating women on video, abusing children with a switch or many players being accused of rape didn’t force the league to take drastic measures to stop domestic violence, there’s no reason to think they will start now. All those guys are talented enough to still be in the league, and the only time the above incidents are remembered by football fans is when we see a meme mocking the player. So yeah, you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath on real preventative actions taken by the league office. But hey, they’re about to do the whole disappointment and outrage bit to convince us this particular suspension is the one that’ll really change league culture, we mean it. Don’t let me stop you, Roger—take it from the top.