Evanson: NFL wants harsher penalty for Browns, Watson
This past Friday, Deshaun Watson for the first time publicly apologized to the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions over a one-year span between March 2020 and March 2021.
"I want to say that I'm truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation," Watson said during an in-house interview on the Browns' pregame show that aired on Cleveland News 5.
Since the time in which the alleged improprieties took place, 25 women filed civil lawsuits against the former Houston Texans and present Cleveland Browns signal-caller, and in July, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who made claims or were prepared to do so against the NFL organization for allegedly "enabling" Watson's behavior.
On Aug. 1, disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson ruled — as part of an independent investigation and hearing regarding Watson's alleged improprieties — that Watson would serve a six-game suspension without pay but will be fined for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Since then, amidst significant pushback from the media and fans of the game, the NFL has appealed the decision, seeking harsher punishment for the quarterback for the behavior, which per Robinson, was "predatory" in nature.
But while no rightminded individual nor the NFL is defending or downplaying Watson's actions, regarding the NFL's latest attempt at further punishing the star quarterback, it feels less about the player and more about the organization that empowered him despite his indiscretions.
This past March, the Browns traded for Watson, sending three first-round draft picks to the Texans. Then, Cleveland gave the alleged predator a new five-year contract worth a guaranteed $230 million — the richest deal in league history. The deal itself was eye-popping, but I'm guessing the Browns' willingness to give it out in light of Watson's behavior was what had the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell seething at the league's offices in New York City.
The NFL and its commissioner have been accused of not responding properly on multiple occasions to player conduct involving domestic violence.
In 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested and subsequently indicted for an incident in which he assaulted his fiancée, punching her in an elevator as seen on hotel security camera footage. Rice was originally suspended for two games by Goodell, who days later announced an indefinite suspension after acknowledging he initially "didn't get it right."
In 2018, Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt too was seen on hotel security cameras similarly assaulting a woman outside of his apartment. Despite not interviewing Hunt but after speaking to key witnesses regarding the incident, the NFL chose not to discipline the running back — and was later forced to again eat a giant slice of humble pie after video showed Hunt hitting and kicking the woman.
Since then, the league has made concerted efforts to improve its stance on violence against women, but Cleveland's contractual gift to Watson undermined those efforts and again put the league in the crosshairs of a media and fanbase expecting more.
I can only imagine the look on Goodell's face when news of the trade and ensuing contract hit the page, airwaves and social media. Gone was the — albeit limited — good faith, and in return was further negativity for a league perpetually looking to avoid it.
That can't sit well with NFL officials, owners and even a portion of its players who have a lot to lose with the erosion of the platform their off-the-field money is built upon.
Which is one of the very big reasons Watson's six-game suspension lacks the teeth necessary for the oversized bite the league is looking to take out of the player and organization responsible for further tarnishing their reputation.
Cleveland has become a punchline for NFL outsiders both on and off the field.
No team has a worse winning percentage over the last 32 years (.343), and until the 2020-21 season, the Browns had the longest current streak of missing the playoffs at 17.
They're also one of just 12 of the NFL's 32 teams never to have won a Super Bowl, and one of just four not to have played in one.
Additionally, since 2000, the team has had 31 different starting quarterbacks. Which might explain the team's interest in Watson, who since entering the league in 2017 has become one of the league's best and most dynamic players at the position.
But at the expense of the league itself? Not if Goodell has his way.
What's a proper punishment for Deshaun Watson? I don't know. After all, how do you quantify damage to a victim of sexual assault, let alone 20 or 30?
The NFL wants a season, and that would probably appease the masses. But does the league want that season as punishment for the perpetrator of the crime(s), or as a means of harming the organization that indirectly told that player what he did was OK, while suggesting the league thought similarly? My guess is the latter.
"The decisions that I made in life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back," Watson said. "But I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character and I am going to keep pushing forward."
I'm guessing he does want this behind him. And so do the Browns. But there's going to be a price to pay for Watson — along with the team that helped him out.
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