Deshaun Watson’s return leaves little learned or accomplished, but clear winners and losers – Andscape

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Deshaun Watson’s return leaves little learned or accomplished, but clear winners and losers – Andscape
Deshaun Watson’s return leaves little learned or accomplished, but clear winners and losers – Andscape


For the past year and a half, I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. There was a time when I was ambivalent. Is he a villain? Predator? Is he simply a product of a celebrity-driven culture where money and entitlement reign supreme? Clearly, Watson is a little bit of everyone.

This much is certain: Watson, 27, is a fallen star whose football career and long-term reputation hang in the balance. On Sunday, Watson will start his first game since January 2021. His absence comes as a result of a barrage of sexual misconduct allegations from massage therapists who claim Watson abused them during therapy sessions. As a result of the allegations and the NFL’s subsequent investigation, Watson served an 11-game suspension. Twenty-four lawsuits were eventually filed against Watson, all but one of which were settled.

According to their attorney, Tony Busby, 10 of those accusers will sit in a luxury box at NRG Stadium on Sunday when Watson returns to the NFL against his old team, the Houston Texans. Busby told The Associated Press that the point of showing up was “to kind of make a statement, ‘Hey, we’re still here.’ We matter. Our voice was heard and this is not something that is over. “

The irony of Watson coming off a suspension in Houston puts the league in position to turn the upset into ratings.

Watson spoke to the media Thursday in Cleveland and said he was advised by his legal and clinical staff to only deal with football-related matters. Watson also declined to elaborate when asked what he has learned about himself while undergoing counseling and therapy and how he will apply what he has learned.

“I respect your question, I understand, but it’s more in that phase of clinical and legal stuff. I was advised to stay out of it and keep it private,” Watson said.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson speaks during a news conference before a joint practice with the Philadelphia Eagles at the CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on August 18 in Berea, Ohio.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Watson spent the first five seasons of his NFL career in Houston and was responsible for the franchise’s brief two-season renaissance. A former first-round pick, Watson enjoyed a fantastic rookie season in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He led Houston to back-to-back winning seasons and first place finishes in the AFC South in 2018 and 2019. The Texans fell to 4-12 in 2020.

Watson’s return to action on Sunday ends a four-month saga that began in August when the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed that Watson would serve an 11-game suspension, pay a $5 million fine and undergo professional assessment and treatment.

My own Watson chronology begins shortly after the 2020 season, when Watson requested a trade after that 4-12 season, when a series of coaching and front office moves were made. Watson was assured by Texans owner Cal McNair that he would be consulted on any such moves. I admired Watson for speaking out and using his influence as a franchise player to bring about change. My sense at the time was that Watson wanted the Texans to attract African-American candidates for head coaching and general manager positions. Houston brought in Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemi for an interview only after Watson protested. After the Texans hired a white general manager, Nick Caserio, Watson buried himself—he no longer wanted to play for Houston. The Texans vowed not to trade Watson, even as a long line emerged for his services.

At this point I was clearly on Watson’s side.

Then the other shoe dropped.

This timeline began in March 2021, when the first sexual assault lawsuits were filed against Watson during this tug-of-war between Watson and the Texans. The complaints were striking and eerily similar in their graphic detail. NFL investigators ultimately concluded that Watson used his position as an NFL player to lure mostly inexperienced massage therapists to locations outside the team’s facility and force them to participate in sexual massage sessions.

Multiple realities can be simultaneously true:

  • Watson was right to defy the Texans and ask for a trade.
  • The Texans were likely aware of their star player’s massage tendencies, but chose to look the other way because he was performing at a superstar level.
  • Watson preys on unsuspecting therapists. Many of the women who complained were solo entrepreneurs trying to start a business. They saw Watson as an opportunity to have a major customer that could boost their business. Through Watson, they could probably attract a well-paid clientele. Watson clearly took advantage of these ambitions and sexualized the sessions.

So here we are four months after the 11-match ban was announced and the main questions are what has been achieved and what lessons have been learned.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson runs a drill during practice at the CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on Nov. 23 in Berea, Ohio.

Nick Kamet/Getty Images

I would say that nothing has changed and not much has been learned. I’ve come to despise the forced apologies, the staged media apologies from athletes that largely serve the public relations needs of the team and the leagues they work in.

We come from such an event with Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets star whose five-game suspension without pay ended days ago after he tweeted links to an anti-Semitic documentary. Irving, like Watson, initially refused to apologize. It was only after the league and the team stepped in and threatened an indefinite suspension that Irving apologized. Irving did not think, and probably did not believe, that he had done anything wrong or that he was anti-Semitic. He apologized because it was a condition of his return to the court.

Watson said he did nothing wrong even after the suspension was announced in August. Watson has said more than a few times that he believes he did nothing wrong. “I have always maintained that I am innocent and I have always said that I have never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone,” Watson told reporters. “And I still stand by it.”

Like Irving, Watson said he wants to move on with his life and career when asked why he wanted to apologize. The only way to achieve this was to submit.

“At the same time, I have to keep moving forward with my life and my career,” Watson said. “For us to move forward, I have to be able to take steps and put my pride aside.”

The more intriguing question after Watson’s suspension is over is who wins and who loses. The scoreboard couldn’t be clearer. The Cleveland Browns win because the team acquired a superstar-caliber star quarterback who likely would never have been available except when he fell out of favor. Before the lawsuits became public, NFL teams lined up to trade for Watson. After the lawsuits became public, nearly every team folded — except for the Browns and owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam.

In justifying the trade, Dee Haslam turned the tables and threw shade at Watson’s accusers by suggesting they were sex workers. “I think there’s just a huge opportunity to talk about major issues in our country in this area, like sex trafficking, massage parlor use,” Haslam told reporters in August.

Watson wins in the short term. He wanted out of Houston, and not only did he get out, but he was rewarded with the richest contract in NFL history: a fully guaranteed $230 million deal.

The NFL is winning. After independent arbitrator Sue L. Robinson suspended Watson for six games, the league responded to public outrage by appealing the decision and asking for a harsher punishment. The league wanted Watson suspended for the entire season and postseason. But as Robinson astutely noted in his ruling: “The NFL may be a ‘forward-looking’ organization, but it’s not necessarily forward-thinking. Just as the NFL responded to violent behavior following a public outcry, so it appears the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry over Mr. Watson’s behavior.

Regardless, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to the 11-game suspension coupled with the most dramatic return dates in Houston. The NFL wins again.

So who loses?

The Houston Texans and their fan base are certainly losing. The Texans continue their downward spiral, the expected consequence of losing a franchise quarterback like Watson.

Women who say they were victimized by Watson are losing even as they expect a payout. Maybe they’ll start a business, but what about the scars?

According to NFL researchers who interviewed some of the therapists, one of them reported that she was frustrated, upset and embarrassed after her session with Watson. Another therapist testified that she changed her business practices and suffered from depression and insomnia because of her interactions with Watson. A third said she wasn’t sure if she would continue in massage therapy.

As for Watson, who knows who and what he will be if he plays another 10 years. Time heals most wounds and in the world of sports and games, winning heals all wounds. If the Watson gamble pays off and the Browns earn big in the coming seasons, all will be forgiven, if not forgotten.

Too often, the reaction of fans to the bad behavior of their sports stars is numb ambivalence. They become anesthetized to wrongdoing if the results bring victories.

It will take more than a win for me to view Watson the same way.

William S. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Slaves, is a freelance writer for Andscape.


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