The NFL Expects You to Forget About Sexual Misconduct

Deshaun Watson at Browns training camp this summer. Photo: Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Will you be able to watch Deshaun Watson play football again without thinking about it? Without thinking about the dozens of women who have accused the NFL quarterback of sexual harassment and sexual assault? Without thinking of the 30 different women who have already settled their civil suits against the Houston Texans, his former team, or the 22 that have settled with him? Without thinking of the massage therapist who told Sports Illustrated that Watson “begged” her for oral sex, or the woman who said he was constantly “thrusting the air” before ejaculating during another massage session?

Will you be able to just watch him throw a football without thinking about any of it? Or will you just forget, as the NFL, his new team the Cleveland Browns, the networks and streaming services paying billions of dollars to broadcast his games, his teammates — and Watson himself — are counting on you to?

At first blush, the six-game suspension the NFL hit Watson with yesterday seems comically light. Many have pointed out that this is 11 games shorter than Calvin Ridley got for betting on football games or only two games longer than Tom Brady got for maybe, possibly, having slightly overinflated footballs. But that’s a flimsy case. The Brady suspension, in particular, was absurd (and is now mostly recognized as such), so the idea that it should be treated as precedent makes no sense. If any offense worse than “slightly overinflated footballs” — which is to say, just about every offense — should mean missing four games, teams wouldn’t be able to field a roster and most of their owners would be gone too. Much more importantly, six games seems light because, well, Watson’s conduct is pretty monstrous! The more you read about it, the more it feels like he should have been suspended for infinity.

But fans don’t actually want that. Or at least, they don’t act like they do. Because the reason the league thinks a six-game suspension might fly for a man facing literally dozens of highly credible accusations of willful sexual misconduct is because, ultimately, we do forget.

One of the stars of last year’s Super Bowl was Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who ran for 72 yards and threw for a touchdown. This was eight years after Mixon almost wasn’t drafted into the NFL, despite his obvious talent, because in college he punched a woman so hard he fractured her facial bones. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has his own issues, said at the time, “I also believe that playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right. I believe that privilege is lost for men who have a history of abusing women.” How many times did this come up during the Super Bowl? The answer is zero.

Jameis Winston, when he was a Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback at Florida State, was involved in one of the highest-profile rape cases in recent memory; filmmaker Kirby Dick even made a whole documentary about it. It’s hardly mentioned anymore now that Winston is the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. No one is out advocating for them to be banned from the sport anymore. They’ve all moved on.

The NFL knows this. Banning Watson forever was never going to be an option for the league, or for Judge Sue Robinson, the independent arbitrator in the case. Criminal charges against Watson had been entirely dropped, which eliminated the NFL’s ability to use the “let the criminal justice system run its course” defense, which was once its guiding force. Without criminal charges, this became a public-relations issue for the NFL, its least favorite position to be in. Both Watson’s lawyers and his accusers seemed to recognize this and have spent the last six months jockeying to win the battle of public opinion. That’s why the NFL handed the case over to Judge Robinson in the first place. What the NFL wants more than anything else is for the public to be angry at someone other than them.

Robinson’s ruling — which the NFL could appeal, but is unlikely to, particularly in the face of strong pushback from the NFL Players Association — gets the league off the hook. (It also remains possible that the six-game suspension recommended by Robinson, who was handpicked by the NFL, gave the league a chance to push the suspension up to eight games in order to look “tough” and save face — but we’ll see.) Part of Robinson’s reasoning for the six-game suspension was that while Watson’s “pattern of behavior was egregious,” that behavior was “nonviolent sexual conduct.” That’s highly debatable, to say the least, but it’s an important distinction to the NFL, which specifically includes “violent acts” in its Personal Conduct Policy. Of the cases that Robinson was reviewing, none involved explicit force, mainly because, as ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio has pointed out, the two primary accusers who mentioned force and coercion declined to cooperate with the NFL’s investigation. This gave Robinson — and the NFL — another out.

The suspension is meanwhile a huge win for the Browns, who traded away multiple draft picks for Watson, gave him one of the largest contracts in NFL history, and now will only be without him for a third of the season. It is very possible that the Browns — a highly talented team that was really only missing a star quarterback — will make the playoffs this year, with Watson attempting to lead them to the first Super Bowl in their history. (Indeed, their Super Bowl odds shot up after the news of Watson’s suspension broke on Monday morning.) The Browns not only bet that Watson would eventually be allowed to play, but that they could make him the face of their (extremely popular) franchise and not pay a price. As ace NFL sports writer Lindsay Jones put it back in March:

At minimum, according to the allegations from 22 women, Watson appears to be a man who abused his stature as a powerful NFL athlete to make women he hired under the guise of routine massage therapy feel uncomfortable. That should have been enough to give teams wanting to make him the face of their franchise pause, but it did not. If you believe the detailed complaints of these 22 women who have accused Watson of exposing his penis during these appointments, groping them, forcibly touching them with his genitals and ejaculating during massage appointments, maybe he’s far worse. The Browns took a gamble on him anyway.

That gamble is now officially paying off. If in six months the Browns are playing in their first ever Super Bowl, and Watson is the hero who led them there, their cynical gamble will look like a stroke of evil genius.

In the world of sports, outrage over off-field conduct — no matter how justified — typically fades. Fans, at the end of the day, do just want to watch the games. That’s exactly what happened with Mixon and Watson, and with Tyreek Hill, and with Ben Roethlisberger. Six games is enough of a nod to “punishment” to allow Watson to get back to the business of playing football and making money for himself and a whole lot of people. Fans could stop this if they wanted. They could make it clear to the NFL that it’s not acceptable for players like Watson to be among its biggest stars. They could boo Watson at every game, away or home. They could boycott the Browns and refuse to buy Watson merch. They could rally advertisers to steer clear of any team or league that wants to look the other way. But they won’t, just like they haven’t in the past. That’s the lesson the league, the owners, the networks, and the advertisers have already learned from them.

That’s hard to sit with. But it’s repeatedly been proven true. We haven’t quit watching football for the myriad of reasons we might have had to do so in the past. This time won’t be any different. If the Browns make the Super Bowl, people like me will bring this up, and the NFL will shrug, say it’s a settled matter, and encourage everyone to move on. And people will. They always have. It sure looks like they always will.

The NFL Expects You to Forget About Sexual Misconduct