CLEVELAND — The ruling finally came in on Monday for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Former U.S. District Court Judge Sue L. Robinson found that Watson's behavior, "that qualifies as sexual assault," violated the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy.
For that, Watson will be suspended for six games in 2022.
Done deal, right? Not necessarily.
The proverbial ball is now in the court of the NFL. They can live with Robinson's ruling and call it a day, or they can appeal to Commissioner Roger Goodell or a designated discipline officer to increase the punishment.
Here's hoping that the owners push back from the table and let it go.
Let me explain...
I want to be very, very clear about where I stand on this issue. From the very first day that Deshaun Watson became a member of the Cleveland Browns, I was against the deal. I thought that the price was too high, not just in draft picks and guaranteed money, but with the baggage that the 26-year-old quarterback brought with him from Houston.
I've covered Cleveland sports closely for more than 20 years and I'm not sure that I've seen an athlete divide the fan base as much as Watson has since he became a Brown in March.
Since then, this has been a difficult story to cover. It was hard for me to watch the "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" piece featuring two of Watson's accusers. It was hard to read about a New York Times story that revealed that Watson met with at least 66 different women for massage appointments between the fall of 2019 and spring of 2021, far more than the roughly 40 he had previously claimed in depositions.
Watson's story has forced all of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we believe. Do we believe the more than 20 women who stepped forward and filed civil suits claiming sexual misconduct on the part of the three-time Pro Bowler? Or do we dismiss them because all but one has settled and no criminal charges were ever filed?
I didn't want any of this for the Cleveland Browns. I didn't want the distractions. I didn't want the allegations. I didn't want fans to feel like they have to take sides.
But here we are.
A quick look at the ruling...
My colleague Ben Axelrod did a great job of analyzing Robinson's decision. She wrote that Watson's actions posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person and conduct that undermines, or puts at risk, the integrity of the NFL. Robinson also said that while she didn't believe that Watson's behavior qualified as "violent," she called his conduct "more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL."
But based on the precedent set in previous cases, as well as the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Robinson said that she couldn't justify suspending Watson for more than six games. "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.
Robinson was jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) as the independent arbiter in the case. This new process is what the two sides agreed on when they came up with a new CBA. Of course, we have the right in the U.S. to appeal if we don't like what a judge or jury hands down. And of course, this is the NFL we're talking about. They don't surrender easily.
But the NFL has to take responsibility for a broken system. Robinson clearly indicates that a larger suspension might have occurred had the league had a consistent precedent of punishments in the past. Instead, it's been a hodgepodge. Thus the reason for the new policy in the CBA. And thus the reason Robinson says the NFL needs "notice" before an extraordinary change.
So what happens if Goodell or his disciplinary officer comes back with a substantially longer suspension? Watson and the NFLPA would likely come back and challenge that ruling in federal court.
Meanwhile, the Browns would be in limbo. Perhaps Watson would be allowed to play. Perhaps not.
Remember Tom Brady and Deflategate? The future Hall of Fame quarterback was suspended for four games for violating the NFL policy on the integrity of the game in 2015. Brady and the NFLPA filed an appeal, which at first resulted in the punishment being nullified by a federal judge, before an appeals court reinstated the suspension months later. While the punishment was being appealed, Brady was permitted to play. It was an 18-month ordeal that cast a dark cloud over the league and the Patriots organization. Brady wound up accepting the four-game suspension when all was said and done.
Does the NFL really want to play that game again? Think about what's happening this weekend. Just down the road in Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities will be taking place. You think Goodell and league owners want to have to answer questions about an ongoing Watson case?
And speaking of which, does the NFL really want a close examination about how it handled off-the-field incidents involving three of their highest-profile owners: Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys? Because if there are more court cases to be had, the NFLPA won't hesitate for a minute to bring up the past.
Everyone wants to do what's right. Judge Robinson handed down what she thought was the right decision. According to Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, Watson "is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him." The NFL wants to do what's right for their brand, while also making sure they are doing what's right for women.
Mistakes were made. Due process was accomplished. It's time to move on.
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