Eight years ago, the NFL did something almost without precedent in its history: It suspended a player for off-field misconduct even though that player had not been indicted or convicted of a crime. For most of its existence, the league had waited for the legal process to run its course before imposing any on-field suspensions or discipline, a strategy that made a certain amount of practical sense — and was also a convenient cop-out. The league didn’t have to play moral arbiter; it only had to follow the lead of the judicial system. Even after Michael Vick admitted his part in a dogfighting ring back in 2007, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and company did nothing, until Vick filed a plea agreement. Then he was suspended indefinitely.
That ended eight years ago. Ray Rice was a star Baltimore Ravens running back about to begin his 2014 season when months-old video emerged of him knocking his fiancée out cold in an elevator and then dragging her out into the hall. The video was — is —shocking. It was also extremely damaging to the NFL, because the league had been privy to the footage shortly after it was recorded, when Rice was indicted for his conduct —and responded by giving him a paltry two-game suspension. When the rest of the world saw the extent of Rice’s brutality, this punishment felt egregiously weak. The resulting uproar was loud enough to cross into the general culture. The New Yorker ran a Barry Blitt cover featuring a football player running downfield away from police officers, and Saturday Night Live sketch had players announcing their felonies instead of their alma mater during game introductions.
This was all such a PR nightmare that the NFL quickly changed its policy. The Ravens cut Rice, and Goodell admitted that he “didn’t get it right” with the two-game suspension. Since then, when dealing with such scandals (which, it must be said, are extremely rare, particularly compared to the larger population), the NFL has been much speedier in doling out punishment. In November 2014, running back Adrian Peterson was suspended indefinitely after being indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child (he had hit his four-year-old son with a switch), and even though he only ended up getting probation, the NFL kept him out of the league for a year. The Cowboys’ Greg Hardy was arrested for domestic violence that same year, but even though the charges against him were dropped when the victim didn’t appear in an appeals court, the league suspended him for 10 games after conducting its own investigation. This was the policy moving forward: Even if the legal system cleared a player, or at least didn’t indict him, the NFL could act as its own justice system. The league wanted no more Ray Rice nightmares.
As we’ve learned in recent weeks, this policy is beginning to change.
Last year, the Houston Texans benched (but still paid) their star quarterback Deshaun Watson all season, after 22 women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Earlier this month, a grand jury declined to indict him. And then two weeks ago, the Texans traded him to the Cleveland Browns, who instantly awarded him with a five-year, $230 million guaranteed contract and made him the face of their beleaguered franchise. It wasn’t just that, though. The Browns structured the contract to pay him only $1 million of that enormous sum this season, so that if the league were to suspend him in the coming months, it would cost him the minimum amount of money. Why did the Browns do things this way? Because if they hadn’t, someone else would have: Despite the (credible, sourced and overwhelming) accusations against Watson, The Athletic reported that 13 different teams wanted to sign him, meeting with him and his lawyers at their offices to make their cases. In the past, athletes have had to beg and plead to clear their name. Here was Watson, still facing 22 different civil cases, hosting NFL suitors like The Bachelor. (Not a single team, despite most claiming they investigated the claims, reached out to the accusers or their lawyers.) The NFL is still likely to suspend Watson, but after the grand jury’s decision, that suspension is expected to be much lighter than previously thought. (Put it this way: Watson is rocketing up fantasy football draft boards.)
The wooing of Watson feels like a reversion to the pre-Ray Rice days. If teams were expecting an onerous punishment coming Watson’s way, they wouldn’t have been climbing over each other to sign him. But they realize the truth: The NFL doesn’t operate that way anymore.
On my podcast “The Long Game With LZ and Leitch,” The Athletic’s senior NFL writer Lindsay Jones, who wrote powerful piece about Watson signing for The Athletic, explained a fundamental fact that the NFL seems to have now accepted and internalized: If there’s no video, we won’t care that much:
And if we don’t care — and the backlash to the Browns’ trade and signing of Watson has been shockingly muted, disturbingly limited mostly to women sportswriters and fans — then the NFL is absolutely not going to care. The league has proven, over and over, that it is concerned solely with public relations. Whatever the prevailing league problem is, whether it’s law-breaking players (or law-breaking owners, for that matter) or concussions or the lack of Black head coaches, the NFL will express grave concern and promise swift action until you are no longer angry, and then they will go right back to doing what they were doing in the first place. Remember the Jon Gruden scandal of last October, how mad we all were, how it was going to blow the lid off the league’s institutionalized racism? When’s the last time you thought about that?
The Watson situation is the logical conclusion of this modus operandi. There’s no video. All charges have been dropped. Watson is insistent of his innocence, pointing toward his single mother as proof of his respect for women. The Browns, a signature NFL franchise with a massive fanbase, desperately need a quarterback, and they’re hardly unique: Nearly half the teams in the league went after him. And much of the fans and media have immediately returned to making this a simple on-field football story. Is it any wonder the NFL is going to do the same? After Watson’s suspension is announced, Goodell will face some backlash, but nothing comparable to the Ray Rice situation. As long as teams (and fans) want the player to play, well, jeez, it’s out of the NFL’s hands, isn’t it? I’m sure this is a huge relief for Goodell and the league. They never wanted suspension and investigatory power in the first place. Now they don’t have to bother with it.
An argument could made that, in a macro sense, this reversion is an improvement. After all, there is something inherently weird about league management investigating and doling out its own judgment outside the legal system — judgment that is more answerable to the whims of the public than necessarily what is just. (See: Deflategate.) And at a certain level, if Watson hasn’t actually been charged with a crime, as loathsome and horrifying as the allegations are, is it somehow more right and just if he is just kicked out of the sport forever because of public outrage? Some might actually argue it is, but the precedent is an awfully thorny one — and one that someone like Goodell probably shouldn’t have control over.
I’d be more open to that line of argument if Goodell and his league weren’t constantly talking about being some sort of moral, ethical beacon, but they are. Goodell wants it all: To make it look like his league has standards without having to take a firm stand to make sure it actually does. We could collectively put pressure on them to act, to do right by Watson’s accusers, to stand for the “values” Goodell constantly espouses as “key to the league’s mission.” But we won’t. Watson is rising up those fantasy draft boards, after all.