Given past discipline inconsistencies, NFL in bind on potential Deshaun Watson punishment | Opinion
With his roster of serious suitors narrowed to a select few, all eyes remain locked on Deshaun Watson as the talented quarterback weighs where he will resume his career after a year-long standoff with the Houston Texans and a sticky legal battle that has extended just as long.
Will Watson, who has earned Pro Bowl honors in three of the four NFL seasons he has played, begin his redemption quest with the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers or Atlanta Falcons?
For now, Watson is “torn,” according to multiple reports, as each of the remaining teams made impressive pitches this week. And for now, it remains unknown exactly how or when Watson’s pending legal issues – 22 civil lawsuits from women who accuse the quarterback of sexual misconduct after he hired them for massage therapy sessions – will end.
It’s known that Watson, 26, will not face criminal charges after a grand jury opted against an indictment last Friday regarding nine criminal complaints. Following that ruling, teams ramped up their pursuit of Watson, whose rights still belong to the Texans. Houston, however, can’t pull the trigger on just any deal because the quarterback holds a no-trade clause, essentially enabling him to pick from the franchises pursuing him.
As the NFL world waits on Watson’s selection, another figure also finds himself under pressure to make a weighty decision: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Watson can select his next team, but he has no say over when he actually will return to competition. That call belongs to Goodell, who finds himself in a difficult position given the complexities of Watson’s case and the league’s history of handling sexual misconduct-related punishments.
Goodell must determine what kind of discipline Watson should face for what classifies as violations of the league’s personal conduct policy, as the grand jury decision doesn’t preclude the quarterback from punishment from the NFL.
To date, the NFL’s investigator has met with 10 of Watson’s accusers,a person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the process. The investigation also is expected to include a review of the evidence presented in the deposition before the grand jury.
Watson has always maintained his innocence, claiming any sexual acts between him and the massage therapists were consensual.
Watson didn’t answer any questions during the deposition, opting instead to plead the fifth to avoid incriminating himself. But he could wind up having to meet with the NFL’s investigator and possibly Goodell.
The NFL has maintained that there is no timeline for the completion of the investigation, but a ruling on Watson’s fate could come down sometime this summer.
Goodell finds himself in a degree of unchartered territory when it comes to Watson’s case.
The NFL has, however, suspended players for sexual misconduct or domestic violence despite the absence of criminal charges.
In 2010, then-Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension after facing allegations of sexual assault. Roethlisberger’s punishment later was reduced to four games. In 2018, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott received a six-game suspension after his former girlfriend accused him of domestic violence. In 2010, then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston received a three-game ban after a female Uber driver accused him of sexual misconduct. And in 2019, former Kansas Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt was suspended eight games as a member of the Cleveland Browns after hotel surveillance video of him punching a woman surfaced in November 2018.
Watson facing accusations from 23 different women – one stopped pursuing her case –translates into a far wider scale than the aforementioned incidents.
Several people within the league expect a suspension of anywhere from two to six games, with many of them leaning towards the six-game end of the spectrum.
It’s believed that Goodell wants to send a strong message that the NFL takes sexual misconduct seriously. But doing so would subject Goodell and the NFL to accusations of hypocrisy.
The last time the Goodell and the NFL had a chance to take a strong stance against sexual harassment and misconduct, they whiffed.
The last time an NFL figure faced 20-plus complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment, Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder received both protection and leniency from Goodell and the league. More than 40 former female employees accused Snyder of presiding over a toxic work environment that included sexual misconduct and harassment by the owner as well as his chief assistants for more than two decades.
Yet Goodell and the NFL refused to make the findings of a year-long public and fined Washington a paltry $10 million, ordered to be paid to charity.
Such leniency rarely accompanies player discipline. And so, as Goodell prepares to rule on another complex case, whatever decision he makes will spark ridicule.
If he punishes Watson severely, he subjects himself to criticism of operating under a double standard.
If Goodell goes easy on Watson, then Roethlisberger, Winston, Elliott and Hunt would probably have something to say about the perceived favoritism.
It’s the downside of having a disciplinary setup that lacks a clear set of guidelines for crimes and punishments and instead is dependent upon the leanings of Goodell, whose decisions often seemingly are made with an eye on public perception and the climate of the day rather with consistency in mind.
There are some within the league who believe that, having sat out all of last season during his spat with Texans management and lost a sizable sum in endorsements, Watson already has paid his price and should start afresh without a suspension. But escaping this whole saga without some kind of suspension seems highly unlikely for Watson, who was never placed on the commissioner's exempt list by the league and still received his full salary in 2021 despite not playing.
A lack of consistency on the disciplinary front has damaged the league’s credibility in the past, and as a result, Goodell and the NFL will not emerge from this saga favorably, no matter their course of action.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.