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Watson and the NFL Settled on a Suspension, But a Stench Lingers

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 8/19/2022 Andrew Brandt
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The NFL got the longer suspension it wanted. Watson will benefit contractually from keeping the suspension under one season. And no one seems to feel good about it.

A year and half after Deshaun Watson was first reported by massage therapists for sexual harassment and sexual assault, we have resolution of his NFL discipline. In a negotiated settlement that obviated the need for a ruling from appeals officer Peter C. Harvey, Watson will now sit out the first 11 games of the NFL season, pay a $5 million fine and undergo mandatory counseling. And this will end the appeals and potential judiciary process for this matter; it is agreed to by the player side—the NFL Players Association and Watson’s legal team—along with the NFL. End of story. But a stench lingers …

My Reaction

As this disciplinary process began, the NFL wanted an indefinite suspension, with Watson having the opportunity to apply for reinstatement after the season. As for Watson’s camp, they were sticking with their party line that he had not done anything wrong and wanted no discipline (as I said throughout, good luck with that).

Judging from those initial extremes, it does appear the NFL got the better of the deal. Still, it seems, well, “icky” that Watson will trot out on the field later this year as the face of the Browns, despite—according to the NFL’s fact finder in this case, former district judge Sue L. Robinson—“egregious” and “predatory” behavior. Watson’s “loss” from this self-caused episode does not seem as harsh as it should have been, considering a pattern of seeking sexual satisfaction through ostensible “massages” over a lengthy period of time.

Amazingly, Watson continues to show no remorse. Although he made a couple of perfunctory statements about the women he “impacted” last weekend, in his press conference following the settlement he maintained he had not disrespected the women. Really? He settled 23 (and counting) lawsuits, the Texans settled another 30 suits and he is accepting banishment from the NFL until mid-November, with a $5 million fine, but he did nothing wrong? Please.

We have closure, but my sense is no one feels good about this, except for the fact that we can all move on and, for a little while at least, not talk about Watson’s predatory behavior. Here are some more thoughts …

The CBA Wins Again

In the end, as all disputes between NFL players and management, the answer lies in the CBA. It has determined the final penalty here as much as anything, with the NFL—as usual—playing from a position of strength.

In the 2020 CBA, commissioner Roger Goodell went from “judge, jury and executioner” to simply the appellate judge. Although, as we found out, it is really the same thing. While the independent arbiter, Robinson, meted out the initial six-game suspension, Goodell sat back and appealed with a handpicked appeal officer, Harvey, who now is spared from making a ruling (I do wonder how much the NFL paid Harvey for, in the end, not making a decision).

There was a lot of talk about Watson’s legal team taking a ruling from Harvey to court that, of course, will not happen now. If they had done so, they would have eventually lost. Sure, maybe there would have been a district court judge—as in the Tom Brady case—sympathetic to Watson, but appellate courts have no such fealty. Tom Brady lost; Ezekiel Elliot lost; Adrian Peterson lost. And Deshaun Watson would have lost.

The Finances

I have talked and written often of the magnitude of Watson’s contract with the Browns. Simply, it is the best player contract in the history of the NFL, and it’s not close.

As we know, the Browns were, at one time, eliminated from consideration as Watson negotiated with the Saints and Falcons. Cleveland then rose from the ashes to sign Watson, with the reasoning pretty clear: a contract that looks like it was written by Watson’s agent. It’s $46 million per year for five years, fully and completely guaranteed and no forfeiture of his signing bonus ($45 million) due to suspension. (We don’t know what terms made New Orleans and/or Atlanta cry uncle, but they clearly both did.)

The Watson team had a strong financial incentive to avoid a yearlong suspension. That would have tolled the contract, freezing it in place to resume next year, The five-year contract would have become a six-year contract and most dramatically, Watson would have made only the $1 million salary scheduled for this year in 2023. Per the settlement, that goal of not tolling the contract was accomplished by the Watson team.

Here is the total loss from Watson’s contract for his pattern of predatory behavior: $650,000. That’s it. Instead of $230 million, he will now make $229.35 million.

It remains to be seen what impact this stunning contract will have going forward. In the two contracts negotiated for high-level quarterbacks since Watson, Derek Carr and Kyler Murray do not receive guarantees past their second seasons, allocating the risk of the later years away from the team and to themselves. Lamar Jackson is now the true test case for this contract.

On the behavioral side, however, we now have precedent of a team (the Browns) protecting a player financially from loss of income due to a pending suspension. That is not good precedent for the management side; the question is whether there will ever be a situation like this where a star player is picking a team in the way that Watson did.

Ickiness Abounds

Which brings me back to perhaps the most, again, “icky” part of this: Watson profited off his own bad behavior. He had demanded a trade, but it was his misconduct that caused his former team, the Texans, to agree to disassociate from him. And his prodigious talent brought suitors, even with the behavior. Had Watson not acted out—as well as wanted out—he would have never received the contract that he did. Ickiness abounds.

Although to many the suspension will always appear light, the NFL did impose its will. It achieved a disciplinary result much closer to its preference than Watson’s. And Watson’s legal team knew, beyond its bluster with its media sources, that a challenge in court was a true uphill climb.

While it does feel like the NFL won the battle, Watson’s financial win and lack of remorse make it seem as though they lost the war here.

Watson will return in November, and he will have four more seasons under contract with the Browns. That was always their goal; this was and is a long-term play for them. They expected the bad PR would die down and, although no time soon but eventually, they will be right. But nothing about this signing has been a good look for them.

We can and will all move on, but the stench of this will linger …

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