An NFL player is in the middle of one of the largest controversies the league has ever seen, and the silence from key figures has never been more noticeable. New allegations against Deshaun Watson are coming in, and a lawsuit against the quarterback has now expanded to include the Houston Texans, but you’d never know anything was happening if you only paid attention to the NFL directly or the Cleveland Browns.
On May 24, commissioner Roger Goodell said the league’s investigation into Watson was winding down. As recently as last week it was reported that the league had completed its probe. Now there’s seemingly no end in sight, even though the NFL has reportedly been investigating Watson for the last 15 months.
Throughout this process the NFL has held the line that it won’t comment on an ongoing investigation. This is fair for something that would last a few months, but this has been dragging on for well over a year. How much more time is needed? Surely the NFL has learned enough to give a process update, or issue preliminary findings — even if more allegations roll in. As it stands the avoidance feels like an attempt by the league to shield Watson and the teams involved from scrutiny, rather than find the truth — which is the entire point of an investigation in the first place.
In the last two weeks we’ve seen two fresh accusations on HBO’s Real Sports. The New York Times published a wide-ranging and detailed investigation of their own into Watson’s actions. Still, the NFL remains silent. Watson has made his Twitter account private, the Browns refuse to comment on the issue — kicking the can down the road to the NFL — and where the buck stops with Goodell and the league office, nobody is willing to talk.
This is absolutely unacceptable. Fans deserve answers with the start of the NFL season around the corner. The buying power, not just of Browns fans but around the league, helps protect, pay, and shield Watson from scrutiny — because that’s the system established around the quarterback. Every person asked simply passes the buck, and the public doesn’t really knows where it stops; the Browns refer to Goodell, Goodell refers to the disciplinary committee, and the committee is silent.
The behavior around Watson is not normal. This is not how investigations have been handled in the past. Calvin Ridley was suspended for a whole season for gambling $1,500 after a four month period. The league’s investigation into domestic violence allegations against Greg Hardy lasted two months in 2015. The Ray Rice scandal lasted seven months.
Three major NFL investigations combined took less time than has been devoted to Watson. It feels like the league wants to drag this out as long as possible so Watson can take the field for Cleveland this fall, and none of this makes any sense. Rice was suspended indefinitely, pending the league’s investigation. Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, once again pending investigation.
Watson has been allowed to participate, as normal, in all football activities for the last 15 months. A trade market was allowed to take place. The Browns were allowed to make him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL, and shield Watson from financial harm from a possible suspension by reducing his 2022 salary and paying him more on the back end.
There has never been wider, more ranging allegations against a player. More than two dozen women have now come forward accusing Watson of sexual assault or harassment. It’s unclear why players like Rice and Hardy were suspended pending investigation, while the only punishment Watson has faced is being pressured into hiding his Twitter account.
Keep in mind, Watson’s treatment also goes against the league’s own personal conduct policy. Internal NFL documents clearly show that players who are being investigated by the NFL will be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list pending the completion of the investigation — which Watson never was.
If we read between the lines it seems the NFL is saying that despite having an investigation that concluded a week ago, at no point did the league find “credible evidence” that a violation of the personal conduct policy occurred by Watson. If they did, then the exempt list should have been triggered. Again, from the NFL’s own policy:
“The NFL will follow a fair and predictable process for investigating the incident and ultimately taking disciplinary action if a violation has occurred.”
- Has the Watson investigation been fair? No, because numerous accusers say the NFL never contacted them.
- Has the Watson investigation been predictable? No, because he has received special treatment based on past investigative processes.
We are now in early June, with the schedule released, training camp to take place soon, and as it stands a man accused of sexually harassing and assaulting over 20 women will take to the field like nothing ever happened. This has been a colossal failure by the NFL. It feels intentional to shield Watson and the Browns while hoping the public forgets, while devoting unparalleled time to the process with zero indication of findings or progression.
The NFL should be ashamed, but that requires an entity of being capable of change. Now it’s time for fans and sponsors to demand answers. This has gone on long enough.