The Cleveland Browns officially introduced quarterback Deshaun Watson at a press conference on Friday.
Watson was joined by general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski for questions during the in-person portion of the press conference at team headquarters in Berea. Owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam took questions a few hours later over Zoom as they just happened to be out of the country on arguably the biggest day for the franchise since they purchased the Browns in 2012.
The day was mostly cordial, although it was a bit less celebratory and a bit more “let’s get through this with our dignity” than what you would normally expect from a team introducing a player that they just handed $230 million in guaranteed money.
Here are a few key takeaways from everyone involved in the two press conferences.
When questioned about the civil lawsuits filed by 22 women who have accused him of inappropriate behavior and sexual assault and why people should believe him, Watson that he has “never assaulted, disrespected or harassed any woman in my life” (quote via team-provided transcript):
“I can’t speak on what people’s opinions are because everyone has their own opinions. What I can continue to do is tell the truth, and that is I have never assaulted, disrespected or harassed any woman in my life. Like I said before, I was raised differently. That is not my DNA. That is not my culture. That is not me as a person, and that is not how I was raised. For me, that is continuing to push forward and show people who I really am. A lot of people have not met me before. A lot of people have not spoken to me before. A lot of people have not been in the same environment as me before. I want to continue to open that up and be able to have people come to me and be able to talk to me about certain things.”
Watson initially turned down joining the Browns via a trade from the Houston Texans then changed his mind, which had nothing to do with the contract the Browns were offering (quote via team-provided transcript):
“Actually, it had nothing to do with the contract. I did not know about the contract until I told my agent that I wanted to come and be a Cleveland Brown. That was secondary. That was after the fact that we spoke on the phone with AB, Kevin and the Haslam family. That had nothing to do with me choosing the Cleveland Browns.
“I think the media was kind of rushing me to make a decision, and I was not comfortable making that right decision. The news gets out and things like that, but for me, I knew that Cleveland was the best situation from a football standpoint and a community and family atmosphere. These guys mentioned it before, once I got to meet these guys – Coach Kevin, AB and the Haslam family – there was just that connection that we just had that bond, and I knew that this was a perfect situation for me to have a fresh start, go win some Super Bowls and move forward and build this community as where we want to build it as.”
The Browns began looking into Watson five months ago, according to Berry, and the work they did led them to the decision to seek a trade (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I go back to we felt good about everything that we collected. We felt good about Deshaun as a person. We feel good about what we learned from the cases to a point where we felt comfortable pursuing the trade and bringing him into the building. If we did not, in terms of what happened or moving forward, we would have not made the trade.
“For us, once we got comfortable with Deshaun as a person and Deshaun the person, it became pretty straightforward from a football perspective. We think he is one of the best players at the position in this sport, he is obviously in his prime and we think it is the most important position in this sport. Once we were able to get comfortable with him as a person, the football part in terms of the evaluation was easy.”
That background work on Watson did not include talking to any of the 22 women involved in the civil cases, according to Berry (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I should note because I know a lot has been said about this, we were advised by our attorneys we were advised against reaching out directly to the 22 women out of concern that it would be considered interfering with the criminal investigation. This, among several other reasons, made it important for us to use independent investigative resources that were unbiased and comprehensive so that we can get a full picture and a full perspective of the criminal and civil cases.
“It was through this time and through this work and what we learned about Deshaun the person and what we learned about the civil and criminal proceedings and obviously working through due process and legal process that got us comfortable with Deshaun the person. We realize and we are not naive to the fact that there are many people who are not as comfortable with this transaction as we are today, but this is something that is a trade that we made to be evaluated over the long run, we do think that there is a strong and detailed body of work about Deshaun and we do have faith in him as a person.”
Perhaps the most important question Berry faced was how he would respond to fans who will no longer support the Browns because they acquired Watson (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I would tell you that we will never fully be able to walk in the shoes of individuals who have been affected by sexual assault. That is something that we thought about a lot as we went through this process, understanding what the reaction would be. That is something that weighed heavily on me. We empathize with that emotion, and we empathize with that sentiment. At the same time, we also do feel good about the work that we did as we vetted this transaction. We do have confidence and faith in Deshaun as a person, and that did weigh into the decision, but between the information that we were able to gather, working through due process and working through the legal process, we do think that this is a decision that as it is evaluated over the long run will be something that is positive for the organization.
“We totally respect and we totally empathize with those sentiments right now and totally understand that there are people who are not comfortable with the transaction right now, but again, we followed our information, we feel good about Deshaun as a person and we think that he is going to do a lot of positive in the community.”
One of the few (perhaps only) football questions was directed to Stefanski, who said the coaching staff will work through how best to use Watson (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“We are going to work through it. We are going to spend a lot of time with Deshaun and the coaches – sit down and make sure we are doing what he is comfortable with. Obviously, we have some good players who we are excited about on our offense. That is our challenge right now that we have to work through is figure out ways that we want to pivot and ways that we want to adapt to make sure that we are utilizing Deshaun to the best of his abilities.
“If you watch a bunch of what Deshaun has done in his past, there are similarities to what Houston was doing to what we were doing; there are some differences. That is our job that we are working hard of understanding where we want to move to. Yeah, I do think you will see differences.”
As for the Haslams, they said they believe that Watson will be able to earn the trust of the fans over time (quotes via a team-provided transcript):
Dee Haslam: “We got really comfortable with Deshaun as the person. Studying his background and spending time with people he knew and speaking with Deshaun, he is a community guy. He wants to be involved in the community. I think he will work really hard to gain trust in the community and within our organization.”
Jimmy Haslam: “Just to add, too, we as a family, we as ownership and we as an organization understood this was going to be difficult and that there would be a lot of people who were not comfortable with it and who would criticize it. We understand it will take time. Some people may never get over it. Here again, we are confident in Deshaun and in the organization that over a period of time, he will be able to gain their trust.”
They also said they understood how trading for Watson would resonate with some fans and actually consulted with their daughters on the move (quotes via a team-provided transcript):
Dee Haslam: “We knew that this could trigger a lot of emotion. It has obviously triggered that emotion in a lot of people. Our daughters weighed in really early how hard this and some of the experiences they have had in their lives. I think the conversations that are coming out of this have been so helpful to us to understand the issues, and I think we look forward to growing and learning more. Jimmy said it a few minutes ago that he has learned so much more about the issue, and it has been something that we definitely will continue to work on.”
Jimmy Haslam: “We had several Sundays in a row where we involved our daughters with our football personnel people – with Andrew, Kevin and (Chief Strategy Officer) Paul (DePodesta) – in which we vetted the issue and had open, honest conversations and asked them to speak up, which they did. Dee and I had conversations with our daughters collectively and individually. We weighed their opinions very heavily, as we did several of our friends and other family members who are not involved in the Browns. I know we are sounding redundant, but I can’t tell you how much time and thought we put into this decision.”
We could probably go on all day, but you get the point. The Browns did their homework on Watson, understood that they would receive pushback over a deal, but decided that the potential on-field success outweighed the off-field negativity.
A lot of words were spilled at today’s press conferences, but it is likely that few minds were changed, which is something the Browns are going to have to live with going forward with Watson.