‘Watson’s NFL return undermines league’s progress on diversity, inclusion’

Hannah Wilkes

Her Huddle Presenter & NFL Reporter

Deshaun Watson served an 11-game suspension and was fined $5m after being accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and misconduct during massage sessions; Hannah Wilkes presents the Her Huddle podcast, a weekly show which celebrates women working in and around the NFL

Last Updated: 02/12/22 5:13pm

Deshaun Watson is due to return to action in the NFL this Sunday, playing for the first time for the Cleveland Browns against his former team, the Houston Texans
Deshaun Watson is due to return to action in the NFL this Sunday, playing for the first time for the Cleveland Browns against his former team, the Houston Texans

It’s really hard to focus purely on the match-ups and playoff storylines present in the NFL as we enter Week 13.

I would love to use this space to speak solely about the playoff-clinching scenarios, the deep NFL Fantasy sleepers who could prove the difference makers, or the excitement of an AFC Championship rematch between Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow on Sunday.

But I can’t. Because this week Deshaun Watson returns as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

And while he may be able to get back to his $46m-per-year job, there are multiple women who have sought counselling, closed their businesses and suffered with their mental health allegedly because of his previous behaviour. It’s not ‘back to normal’ for them.

This isn’t conjecture. This is evidenced by Sue L. Robinson, the former federal judge appointed by the NFL and NFL Players’ Association to investigate the complaints of sexual misconduct and assault by Watson.

Her report listed how some of the women interviewed sought professional help, suffered sleepless nights and depression, and felt unable to return to the job that they loved. It all fed into the conclusion that the NFL proved “by a preponderance of evidence” that Watson engaged in sexual assault as defined by the NFL, that his conduct posed a “genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person”. His conduct undermined the integrity of the league.

Background to Deshaun Watson sexual misconduct allegations

  • More than two dozen women have accused Watson of sexual assault and other inappropriate sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
  • Over the summer, Watson agreed to settle 23 of 24 lawsuits filed against him.
  • The NFL ruled Watson’s behaviour with massage therapists as “egregious” and “predatory”, fining him $5m and handing down an 11-game suspension, in addition to mandatory counselling and treatment.
  • There are two lawsuits still pending. One of the original 24 complaints, and a further suit filed on October 13, with a woman claiming Watson pressured her into oral sex during a massage session in 2020.
  • Two other women filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him, but two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges.
  • Watson has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying he didn’t harass or force himself on any women.
  • Watson will play for the Cleveland Browns against his former team, the Houston Texans on Sunday, with 10 of his accusers planning to attend the game according to their lawyer Tony Buzbee.
  • Watson signed a $230m fully guaranteed contract with the Browns in March – the richest in NFL history.

I know you know all this, I know it has been discussed multiple times and in multiple ways. I know that if you are someone with the slightest moral compass, you find it at the very least unsettling and uncomfortable that Watson is returning to the sport so soon and on such a lucrative contract that secures him the most guaranteed money in NFL history.

I also know that, according to the attorney Tony Buzbee, most of the women involved in filing the suits against Watson do now want to move on with their lives, quite rightly so too, but that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it.

It still matters because, in the face of allegations from more than two dozen women – 23 suits settled and two still pending – one man gets to return to business as usual.

It matters because those women were forced to release their names in order for their claims to be legitimised.

It matters because Calvin Ridley was banned for an entire season and fined $11m for making a $1,500 dollar bet on an NFL game. Watson was suspended 11 games and fined $5m.

Deshaun Watson is due to return to action in the NFL this Sunday, playing for the first time for the Cleveland Browns against his former team, the Houston Texans
Deshaun Watson is due to return to action in the NFL this Sunday, playing for the first time for the Cleveland Browns against his former team, the Houston Texans

It matters because if you know a woman (and I’d be amazed if you’ve never met a single one of us, we are everywhere), then I almost guarantee that you actually know a woman who’s suffered some form of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Know a woman that has had comments made in a space where she should feel safe and protected, felt like something was “a bit off” but likely didn’t want to make a fuss or “blow it out of proportion”. And this is me talking in the mildest of terms.

It matters because, despite having complied with his mandated counselling sessions and rolling out the “I’m sorry if I triggered anyone” line, Deshaun Watson hasn’t actually, genuinely, apologised. At least beyond the awkwardly-staged preseason interview in which he said sorry to “all of the women that I have impacted” before once again denying any wrongdoing merely days after his 11-game suspension had been agreed.

It’s worth recalling that prior to the aforementioned ‘apology’, Sue L. Robinson had noted Watson’s lack of remorse in her decision-making, which the NFL had stated they would appeal.

It matters because the sum of all these parts is a system and a culture where women are repeatedly told, in a myriad of ways, that they are ‘less than’. Their experiences are less important than the ability of an elite sportsman. Their collective voices are less powerful than a wealthy man. That they, essentially, don’t matter.

In a sport that celebrates diversity and inclusion, one which is patting itself on the back for the number of women in coaching jobs, celebrating more women than ever in executive boardrooms and applauding having more female fans than ever, it matters.

Source : Sky Sports