The NFL has filed an appeal of the six-game suspension handed down by Sue L. Robinson, the arbiter in the case of Deshaun Watson. Watson has been accused of sexually harassing and/or assaulting at least 24 women as they worked for him as massage therapists. In a particularly pernicious twist, the Texans sent an assist his way in the form of a non-disclosure agreement, designed to bar the women from speaking publicly about their experiences.
Although 24 women filed lawsuits, Watson was found to have visited more than 60 in a 15-month period. And he was found to have ejaculated on one massage therapist of the four interviewed by the NFL. Watson denies any wrongdoing.
Robinson, a former federal judge, said in her ruling, “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”
And that’s saying something.
The NFL reportedly wants Watson off the field for another year, but after collectively bargaining player discipline, it couldn’t impose that penalty until after Robinson made her inadequate call. But Robinson in part claimed that she was following the low precedent for “non-violent” offenses, so if the NFL wants to raise the bar for a player who has industrialized sexual assault, it has no choice but to appeal.
It needs to set a new precedent, and apply its discipline consistently to players and, more importantly, owners.
When you cover the NFL, if you wrote about Ray Rice, you would hear from anonymous Ravens fans who wondered what his girlfriend did to prompt that punch in the elevator. Write about Patriot owner Robert Kraft’s charges for soliciting prostitution at a massage parlor (charges were later dropped) and you hear from Boston-area activists in support of massage-parlor handjobs.
Whether it makes sense or not, the NFL’s stance on this matters. Being a fan of a sports team isn’t a rational process. It’s a teeth-gnashing loyalty, a jersey-hoarding reason to love Tom Brady with a passion, or detest him. When it comes to issues like the systematic harassment of massage therapists, fandom can make otherwise reasonable people make convoluted arguments about towel size and consent because your sense of right and wrong might get in the way of cheering for your quarterback on Sunday. And that can’t happen.
Look no farther than the crowd of fans clamoring around Watson this week at the Browns training camp.
A longer suspension is really just a triage for a situation that the league did not manage well to begin with. The first lawsuit against Watson was filed in March 2021 when he was on the Texans, and the process of getting to the Browns meant he was bid on by teams, debated in terms of value, and the weak-tea term “off-field issues” on debate shows and NFL forums, while more than two dozen women were recounting a devastating pattern of harassment.
The New York Times’ Jenny Vrentas explained this timeline succinctly on the in-house podcast, The Daily.
Massage therapists are professionals, and NFL players and owners have a history of treating them extremely unprofessionally. Two massage therapists filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Jets in 2011, and there were Kraft’s charges after illicit visits in 2018 to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa.
There are plenty of NFL fans who are perfectly fine with blaming the collateral damage of this behavior on their team’s road to wins and losses. “What were the therapists wearing?” Is that what the NFL wants to be? Not when it comes at least to players.
If you’re an owner, you can use an army of lawyers to get off on a technicality, or float around on an expensive boat to avoid a subpoena. Commanders owner Dan Snyder did finally testify to Congress on the atmosphere of harassment alleged in the Washington workplace, but still managed to avoid doing it under oath, the coward. And did the NFL weigh in on this childishness?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would get a lot less derision from the NFL Players Association and fans if the league would hold owners to the same standards it holds players to for very similar behavior.
If you want to say there is a double standard when it comes to NFL discipline, you’ll get no argument here. But that doesn’t mean reclassifying Watson’s sexual assault as non-violent. Stealing paper out of the copy room is non-violent. Using someone’s Netflix password is non-violent. Telling an employee you are a very important NFL player and then ejaculating on their arm, as Watson was alleged to have done by a therapist interviewed by the NFL, is a different category of interaction.
When we treat all crimes as some form of commerce, gender-based crimes are discounted. There is no price on trauma, and so the law doesn’t give it an accurate value. The women who have come forward talked about having their lives and businesses affected. Vrentas reported on the toll, it’s there for anyone to see.
That Robinson barred Watson from seeking outside massage therapists is an absolute joke. An unrepentant Watson could certainly find another way to prey on women. The problem isn’t massages, it’s the assaults. Brent Naccara, who is alleged in a lawsuit to have given Watson the NDA as a shield against the assault claims, is still listed as the Texans’ Director of Security and Facility Operations.
The NFL has the fan support and the ratings to do whatever it likes really. It has made tremendous headway in hiring women as coaches and referees, but the league still has an unhealthy culture when it comes to women. Being more consistent with discipline in cases like Watson’s, and holding teams and owners like Kraft and Snyder to account, is a baseline.
Lastly, If you disliked anything in this column, please write it up, put it in an envelope and deliver it to my yacht.