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NFL ready to take control over Deshaun Watson’s fate

League has known since June what avenue to take

NFL: Cleveland Browns Training Camp Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The six game suspension that Judge Sue Robinson suggested for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is just a starting point.

All along, the league has wanted to suspend Watson indefinitely. But the language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) would not allow them to, unless they had proof of his guilt concerning the allegations regarding 26 different women, mostly massage therapists.

Judge Robinson provided this.

Two grand jury panels in Texas did not give the NFL the concrete proof they needed. In fact, these courts stated they could not find any evidence that Watson had done anything wrong.

Judge Sue Robinson

Next in the three day hearing before Robinson, she heard testimony from Watson, the NFLPA, four of the alleged victims, plus a team representing the NFL.

In the 16-page report, she did not dispute that the league had proved the three arguments against Watson and she decided that the quarterback had indeed violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy. She also stated that his actions gave the league a very negative light. Robinson noted that he did not show any remorse for his alleged actions.

However, Watson is noted as a first time offender, had an excellent reputation in the community, fully-cooperated in the entire investigation process, none of his allegations involved any type of violence and he has paid restitution to all but one of the alleged victims despite Watson maintaining his innocence this entire process.

Robinson also mentioned that the NFL’s stance was one of a response to public outcry and

“attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to — and consistency of consequence for — those in the NFL subject to the Policy.”

Her decision to give six games was simply what seemed to be what the league was used to giving out in the past.

From the beginning, the league wanted to illustrate that Watson’s motive with these massage sessions should be qualified as sexual assaults – period. And if so, then his behavior should be viewed as a bona fide danger to the safety and well-being of other people in general. This would then determine that his actions placed the entire integrity of the league at risk.

And therefore their stance is that Watson should be suspended indefinitely. Thrown out. Exiled from playing again in the National Football League.

No precedent

When the six game suspension was announced, Watson’s camp was vocal that he should not be suspended at all. The Browns stated that as much as they were disappointed, they would accept the recommendation by Judge Robinson. The NFLPA followed Cleveland’s sentiment.

Next up, the NFL had three days to appeal the decision.

The NFL had stuck a dagger into Ray Rice’s playing career in 2014. The former second round draft pick was involved in controversy when a hotel video surfaced which showed Rice attack his fiance in an elevator to which she became unconscious. Rice was then seen pulling her from the elevator holding her shoes and was about to drag her down the hallway when a hotel employee intervened.

Daily News Front Page DISGR*CE Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images

A two-game suspension was accessed. TMZ released the video to which public outcry followed. Next, an indefinite suspension followed while all Rice items from pro shops were removed. Upon appeal, Rice won to be reinstated, yet no team ever signed him. In 2018, Rice announced his retirement.

This one incident changed the CBA and the NFL’s personal conduct policy forever regarding violence to women.

But that is the rub. According to every lawsuit filed against Watson, there isn’t a single statement that mentions or suggests violence.

With that in hand, Judge Robinson had only violent past cases as a guideline. She wrote that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.” Still, no violence and nothing to make a decision based upon with past incidents with former offenders.

Therefore, Judge Robinson did not find any precedent to support the league’s assertion that Watson should be suspended indefinitely.

Moment the NFL decided they were going to appeal

In the hearing, there became a single moment for all parties – especially the NFL.

The league knew that a full year or an indefinite suspension would not be granted or suggested by Judge Robinson. They knew this in a hearing.

It was early in the hearing process which was attended by Watson and his legal team, along with representatives from both the NFLPA and the NFL. Robinson stated that the NFL was very likely not going to get the one-year suspension they coveted. This was stated in front of everyone.

The ruling was not ready. The report wasn’t even begun, but yet the NFL knew an appeal would be shortcoming.

Robinson was hailed as an independent arbitrator who had 17-years on the bench. She was viewed as bringing balance to the justice system the NFL had created within its own walls. But yet, the power still remains in the NFL’s hands of what to do under the shield.

And when the league gives Watson the indefinite suspension they ultimately wanted in the first place, the league will have shown that the control never left the building.

This could ultimately become the second worst trade in NFL history behind Dallas sending Herschel Walker to Minnesota in 1989. Other famous trade blunders include the New York Football Giants shipping MLB Sam Huff to the Washington Redskins plus the Browns trading Bobby Mitchell to the Redskins.

Bobby Mitchell

In 1962, the United States Government issued an ultimatum to the Redskins to employ black players much to the anguish of their well-known bigot owner George Preston Marshall. Washington then drafted Heisman winner Ernie Davis, a black player, with the first overall pick. Davis refused to play for Marshall, so a deal was struck with Browns’ head coach Paul Brown who sent one of their first round picks Leroy Jackson plus starting halfback Bobby Mitchell to Washington for Davis.

Davis then signed the NFL’s most lucrative rookie contract ever with the Browns. After weeks of practice, he was diagnosed with leukemia and never played a single game before his passing in 1963.

Meanwhile, Mitchell made the Pro Bowl in 1962 and was named First Team All-Pro. He was the NFL receptions leader as a receiver and running back plus was the league’s receiving yards leader. In his eight-year career in Washington, Mitchell made the Pro Bowl three times and was named All-Pro three times. Later, the Redskins would hire him as their Assistant GM, place him in their Ring of Honor, name him to the “80 Greatest Redskins Team” and retire his Number 49 jersey. In 1983, Mitchell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now, the appeal

Most likely, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will appoint a league ally as the final voice in the Deshaun Watson case.

He has designated former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey.

Obviously, a six game suspension isn’t going to cut it for the league. They want to be champions of the abuse of the women and be viewed as an entity that isn’t going to tolerate any abuse whatsoever.

Judge Robinson assessed that Watson was, in her mind, a sexual predator. The NFL doesn’t need the television viewing audience to be constantly reminded every Browns game that Watson got away with just six games and no fine. The league doesn’t want that they have a predator among their midst and yet he is making $46 million a year.

Plus, the fact that Dee and Jimmy Haslam gave Watson that astronomical contract with all of it guaranteed did not sit well with the other owners. Now that sets the bar extremely high when these owners have to deal with their own superstar players.

And you may ask yourself as to why the league and the NFLPA would put on this dog-and-pony show and call it neutral arbitration when ultimately the league will get what it wanted in the first place?

The answer is that the league under the new CBA had to prove its case first using credible evidence in the presence of an independent voice.

Nobody who has read Robinson’s report will state that she found Watson innocent of any wrongdoing. Not at all.

The fact that Watson identified himself as an NFL player to these therapists is paramount to Robinson’s findings with the NFL’s evidence that his actions were detrimental to the league.

And now, after the NFL has issued its final decision, the new decision will be binding upon the player, the Browns, and the parties to the agreement. If this becomes an indefinite suspension, the NFLPA will then sue. Do not for one second think that this lawsuit will be settled any time soon. This process will also become a lengthy media circus.

Keep in mind that the league’s appeal of the suspension rendered by a third party is something that the NFLPA agreed to during the 2020 CBA negotiations.

Going forward

The league will need to amend their personal conduct policy. The Watson case has shown that there are too many gray areas contained in the language. This incident was a new area that the league and the CBA did not have a real answer for. There are so many unknowns when you are dealing with people from all walks of life and they aren’t always of a violent nature.

Judge Robinson only had past infractions as her barometer to work with. She decided that Watson was not being truthful and assumed most of the allegations were probably factual. In the past, the NFL suspensions teetered on a six game suspension, and that is what she gave for a non-violent offense.

Every corporation has employees who run afoul of the rules. And in this case, it should be arranged and worded that would affect every person in every franchise – starting with the owners.

The appeal process and subsequent lawsuit filed by the NFLPA will bring up multiple owners into the courtroom as a precedent and example. This will not look good at all levels for the league when the very management of these organizations aren’t playing by the same rules.

How can the league win in this situation is a really good question. It can’t. So, why fight it tooth and nail over one player just to have the league’s dirty laundry aired out eventually in court for every one to see? Obviously that in itself is a big sticking point.

The NFL is the most profitable, most popular sport in the United States and they certainly want to keep growing. The demographic with the greatest growth potential is women. Their subsequent actions against Watson is a reasonable business decision.

After all, when all is said and done, it is the NFL that will have to deal with the public backlash.

What the NFL wants is to become the parole officer for Deshaun Watson. They want him suspended indefinitely with the avenue that Watson can re-apply in a year. Then they can rubber stamp his application with a big red “Denied” and tell him thank you for coming and he is welcome to come before their review board in another year.

Cleveland Browns Training Camp Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

And all the while the Houston Texans will be drafting Cleveland’s first round picks for several years while Watson will possibly never see the field. Meanwhile, the Browns will start career backup Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback with his backups Josh Dobbs and Josh Rosen - which are both one injury away from starting.

It is very possible that Deshaun Watson could be the Browns’ next Ernie Davis – give up a lot to get him yet he never plays.

Think about it: initially, the NFL gave Ray Rice a two game suspension until public outcry plus an avalanche of adverse media scrutiny made them rethink their position. The end result was that he never played another down in the league.

The NFL has taken that Ray Rice dagger out of its display case and has since honed the blade.