Deshaun Watson, the NFL, and Six Games That Could Change the League

What if being a professional athlete didn’t offer you so much protection from the consequences of your actions?

There are few, if any, words to describe the sinking feeling felt by many around the football world when Deshaun’s six game suspension was announced. The discourse that followed ran the gamut from being trauma informed for the victims to the traditional voices of sport that we have heard too many times when it comes to cases of sexual assault allegations in sport. Regardless of where you fall, it’s hard to argue with the gut punch feeling of a penalty that amounts to a mere quarter of play for each of the 24 original plaintiffs. 

Since the initial announcement there have been details discussed, appeals filed, and statements made from all sides so let’s break down how we got here, what happens now, and what could unfold next. 

How He Got Six

Six games would be laughable if it weren’t so plausible in the world of professional football when you consider exactly what allegations we’re dealing with here. Watson’s six game suspension for an alleged pattern of sexual assault is at least 11 games more than Calvin Ridley will serve for betting on an NFL game while it’s an incalculable fraction of the time that Josh Gordon has missed for marijuana use. Whether you think Watson deserved more, less, or six there is no escaping the complete and utter absence of logic used to assess that ruining the lives of over 20 women is a lesser crime than smoking a plant or placing a bet. 

But obviously with a former federal judge handing down this ruling, there would have to be some string of logic somewhere. According to Albert Breer, Judge Robinson’s decision was not based on the 20+ cases filed against Watson, rather it was based on five cases, four of which were plaintiffs. So for Robinson, Watson wasn’t suspended one quarter of football for every plaintiff but was suspended a game and a bit as retribution for each case. 

So how did Robinson only see five cases when it was well reported within the media that we were nearing 30 plaintiffs? 

The way this all unfolded is a result of the arbitration process negotiated between the NFL and NFLPA in 2020 as a way to amend a system that had long been criticized for its inconsistencies and conflicts of interest. Watson’s case falls under the personal conduct policy and is the first disciplinary decision to be actioned through a third party through the agreement.  The league’s personal conduct policy has undergone some revisions over the course of the last few years but has always allowed for penalizing players even if accusations do not lead to criminal convictions. 

Given the facts presented across the five cases that landed on Robinson’s desk, she felt the six games to be appropriate. There really is no way to know what the outcome may have been should she have seen the entirety of the file against Watson, but given after evaluating the five cases she wrote in her report that Watson represented “a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person, and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL” it likely could have been a different outcome. 

Now What?

The immediate future got a whole lot murkier on Wednesday morning when the NFL announced it would appeal the decision, stating they’re seeking to suspend the quarterback indefinitely. For many the decision to appeal was a no brainer given the severity of the allegations against Watson, but the appeal does open the league up to the potential of Watson playing in Week 1. 

The appeal has to be based on Robinson’s process, meaning the same five cases originally presented to the judge. The league filed their brief on Wednesday afternoon and has said that Roger Goddell will decide on who will hear the appeal. Under the same CBA that put the original case under a third party’s purview, Goddell has the right to consider the appeal himself or appoint someone else to do so. 

Within the brief, the NFL indicated it is seeking an indefinite suspension (which means at least a year), a monetary fine, as well as a treatment plan for Watson to undergo. 

The NFLPA has until Friday to respond to the league’s filing in writing and it’s worth noting that the PA have been reported to be preparing to sue the NFL in federal court should the league appeal Robinson’s decision. Only once the NFLPA’s response is filed will Goddell decide on who will hear the appeal.  

By appealing the third party’s decision the NFL, on the surface, could appear to be undermining a process they only just agreed to on the first chance they had to do it. But beyond the reading between the lines of the CBA and what the NFL appears to feel towards it, their swift decision to appeal Robinson’s decision, and to be seeking as much as they are in terms of penalties, demonstrates a move away from the traditional “boys club” that has historically governed sports like football. Whether this shift will stick or be felt in other aspects of the game remains to be seen, it’s important to remember that a step is a step, even if it’s a baby one. 

But What If..?

Undoubtedly, the NFL’s decision to appeal opens up a lot of what ifs to unpack; the biggest, and most spiral inducing being what if Goddell, or whoever he designates, overturns the six game suspension?

In this case, Watson could (and most likely will) file a lawsuit of his own that would have the union (his camp) seek a TRO (temporary restraining order) to put a stay on the newly extended suspension. This is the scenario that would see Watson play in Week 1, as he would be eligible to play while the case was in court. 
While we can postulate on what the NFL will rule for days and weeks there really is no way of knowing. What can be said though is that Robinson, who levied the mere six games, also concluded that Watson’s “predatory conduct cast a negative light on the League and its players” and given the new decision maker’s financial interest in there being nothing but a positive light on his League, it may be a good time to start preparing for the what ifs.

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