December 9, 2022

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell must increase Deshaun Watson suspension length

Deshaun Watson could make his debut with the Browns this fall unless the NFL intercedes. (Nick Cammett/AP)

Roger Goodell needs to make this right.

The NFL’s commissioner needs to keep Deshaun Watson off a football field in 2022.

Judge Sue L. Robinson’s recommendation of a six-game suspension announced Monday would have the Cleveland Browns’ quarterback back on a football field by October.

That is unacceptable.

Robinson, a neutral arbiter selected and paid jointly by the league and players’ association, acknowledged Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” in her 16-page ruling of his alleged sexual assaults on massage therapists. Twenty-four women in total filed civil lawsuits against the former Houston Texans QB.

The judge said “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”

She even ruled Watson had violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy by engaging in: sexual assault, conduct that poses a genuine danger to people’s safety and well-being, and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.

Yet somehow, Robinson used precedent in the NFL’s enforcement of “non-violent sexual assault” to keep Watson’s suspension at a meager six games.

“Prior cases involving non-violent sexual assault have resulted in discipline far less severe than what the NFL proposes here, with the most severe penalty being a 3-game suspension for a player who had been previously warned about his conduct,” Robinson wrote.

“While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct,” the judge continued, “I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players.”

First of all, let’s be very clear: “Non-violent sexual assault” is the kind of tortured oxymoron that could only be found in an American law journal or the NFL rulebook.

But beyond that crime against language, it is disingenuous and faulty logic to acknowledge the unprecedented nature of Watson’s conduct and then to hide behind precedent to steer clear of an unprecedented punishment.

This is the same sort of logic used by our justice system, which so often fails sexual assault victims, and which Robinson represented in her capacity as a judge. It lends the NFL no credibility to employ a former judge in such matters when the system from which that judge came is so obviously flawed when it comes to sexual assault cases.

The NFL players’ union obviously is not going to appeal this ruling and pledged not to prior to Robinson’s public announcement.

But the NFL has three business days to appeal, and if the league does, Goodell would have the power to issue a “full, final and complete disposition of the dispute.”

In other words, Goodell can still play judge and jury here.

And while the commissioner’s mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case will always be a stain on his record and the league’s, he has an opportunity here to set a firm precedent going forward for Watson’s unprecedented behavior.

A statement released by the NFL in the wake of Robinson’s ruling left the door open to a potential appeal.

“We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer, for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in the statement. “We appreciate Judge Robinson’s diligence and professionalism throughout this process.

“Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days,” the statement added. “In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”

Robinson’s six-game suspension rang incredibly hollow on Monday as she simultaneously recommended that Watson should “limit his massage therapy to Club directed sessions and Club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career.”

Here was the judge admitting that Watson “engaged in sexual assault,” and essentially cautioning that he can’t be trusted in similar situations in the future, but letting him resume his NFL career in short order anyway.

Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, memorably told a Houston radio station in early June that a “happy ending” isn’t a crime—an admission of Watson’s alleged pattern of behavior if there ever was one, even if Hardin didn’t say it in a court of law.

Instead, Robinson noted the NFLPA’s contention that it would not be “fair and consistent” to severely punish Watson but “not even charge various team owners who have been accused of similar or worse conduct.”

That apparent allusion to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s alleged 2019 solicitation at a Florida massage parlor seemed to equate consensual sex work—for which four defendants working at Orchids of Asia faced felony charges—with sexual assault. That kind of logic betrays what Hardin really thinks about his client’s alleged crimes: He does not consider consent to be relevant.

Watson already had settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits against him prior to this week. Then plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee announced three of the four remaining civil cases had been resolved Monday. Now Robinson’s ruling nearly sweeps Watson’s transgressions in the rear view.

The judge noted that while Watson did not play during the 2021 season, Goodell “declined to put him on administrative leave under which any games missed would be credited against any suspension later imposed.”

So it’s possible Goodell could accept Robinson’s six game ruling and simply add a heavy fine, acknowledging Watson already sat out a full year of games.

Everyone would see right through that political compromise, though. The NFL would lose more credibility by again limiting the well-being and safety of women to a footnote.

The NFL already recommended that Watson be suspended for at least the entire 2022 NFL regular and postseason. Robinson disagreed. But Goodell has the final say.

It’s time he uses it.