This article includes references to allegations of sexual assault that may be unsettling for readers.
Deshaun Watson was once one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
He was one of the most exciting players in the NFL. Watson started 54 games over his first four seasons in the league, only missing starts because of an ACL tear during his rookie season. Then, suddenly, in 2021 Watson was no longer starting for the Houston Texans.
There was no ACL tear. There was no injury at all. Watson wasn't placed on Injured Reserve, where injured players go, nor was he listed as a player who was refusing to play. Instead, he suited up for every practice and turned up for every game. But for 17 games in 2021 the Houston Texans coaching staff listed him as an inactive player on gameday.
A franchise without other star players voluntarily sat their only star player.
Watson requested a trade from the Texans prior to the start of the season. It's not unusual for teams to shut down players who request a trade, but they never carry them on the roster the way the Texans did because that means paying them their full salary.
On April 15th, 2021, a woman identified herself in court accusing Watson of sexual assault. She was the 22nd woman to do so. The Athletic has the full timeline of those accusations.
Nike, amongst other leading brands, ended their sponsorship deals with Watson. The Houston Texans did not discipline him or release him. Instead, trade talks with other teams took place. But no deal was reached with Watson's playing status uncertain.
On March 12th, 2022, it was announced that Watson would not face criminal charges. The Grand Jury in Harris County, Texas declined to indict Watson. He still faced (and faces today) 22 active civil suits accusing him of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
NFL reporters, most notably Adam Schefter, reported that this was a green light for teams to acquire Watson.
This was a poorly worded tweet that deserves a proper response. It was intended to provide insight into the strategy of Watson’s legal team from its POV. I should have been clearer. As legal experts have explained, a lack of an indictment alone does not mean someone is innocent.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2022
Schefter apologized for framing the initial result as "the truth." But he never deleted the tweet and his apology came long after his initial tweet had spread across the landscape of the NFL. The PR impact was huge because his initial tweet reached at least 79,000 people, whereas his clarification reached significantly fewer people.
Previously, Schefter has admitted to allowing an NFL owner to frame his messaging.
Trade talks multiplied after "the truth" about Watson. The Carolina Panthers were aggressive. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons lasted until the final hurdle. Eventually, they only lost out because the Cleveland Browns swooped in. The Browns were willing to make financial concessions and commitments to Watson that other teams weren't.
Team owner Jimmy Haslam, GM Andrew Barry and head coach Kevin Stefanski traded away a huge amount of equity. The Browns paid three first round picks, a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick and a fifth-round pick. You can translate that to 'the farm.'
But not only that, the Browns anticipate Watson will be suspended this season. To satiate his demands, they structured his contract so he will only lose $1 million of his brand new $230 million contract. Watson will get the most guaranteed money in the history of the NFL.
Watson had to give his consent for the Texans to trade him. He had a no-trade clause in his contract.
Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Browns franchise, has his own experience with FBI investigations. On Sunday, Haslam released a statement defending the Watson trade.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) March 20, 2022
It's a masterclass in PR crisis management. Haslam uses phrases such as "tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating", "comprehensive evaluation process" and "straightforward dialogue, discuss our priorities, and hear directly from him on how he wants to approach his career on and off the field."
Those are phrases and statements that sound like what you want to hear. But the tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating was spent on "the opportunity to trade for" Watson, not on whether Watson was innocent or not. The accusations are not referenced at all, but rather the fan criticism which is brushed aside as "highly personal sentiments."
In the referenced dialogue with Watson, Haslam speaks about how Watson is going to be a great teammate and leader in a football context. He calls Watson "candid" but he's not speaking about the accusations against him.
The statement talks around the accusations and never references them specifically. Because Haslam knows acknowledging the accusations would reveal the Browns simply didn't care about them.
The referenced "comprehensive evaluation process" does not appear to be about Watson the person, but rather Watson the player. According to Tony Buzbee, the lawyer representing the 22 women who have accused Watson of sexual assault, no NFL team has contacted any of the women involved to ask about Watson or the accusations.
And yet, Kevin Stefanski echoed, "Our organization did a tremendous amount of background on Deshaun."
Andrew Berry produced a more expansive word salad, "We have done extensive investigative, legal and reference work over the past several months to provide us with the appropriate information needed to make an informed decision about pursuing him and moving forward with him as our quarterback."
It's the next sentence where the reality comes out.
"Deshaun has been among the very best at the position..."
NFL teams historically do not care about violence against women.
Disturbing accusations against Greg Hardy did not prevent him from continuing his career with the Dallas Cowboys. Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension for two separate allegations of sexual assault, including rape, back in 2010. Roethlisberger just received a hero's reception as he retired at the end of the 2021 season. He will join the hall of fame in five years.
Joe Mixon just played in the Super Bowl. Mixon punched a woman in the face in college before the Bengals made him a highly-paid draft pick. There is similar video of Kareem Hunt. The Cleveland Browns running back shoved and kicked a woman on camera in a hotel in 2018. The Chiefs released him but the Browns signed him after a short suspension.
NFL teams elevate quarterbacks above normal players. They must be more than just players.
Not only are they the most difficult to find and the most impactful individual players. They're also de facto leaders and represent the franchise on a public relations level. The Browns cited that as a reason for Baker Mayfield's immediate departure. Chris Mortenson reported that the Browns didn't consider Mayfield an "adult quarterback."
They have no such concerns about the man with 22 separate sexual assault accusations.
Professional sports is about winning games and making money. But shouldn't it be about more than that?
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre offers 24/7 support for anyone in need. You can visit their website or call 1800-77-8888.