It was Friday evening when the man charged with sexual assault of 22 women received the largest contract in NFL history - $230 million, all in guaranteed money from an NFL team. The response was swift and almost universal on Twitter from members of the football media and beyond weighing in:
Lindsay Jones, The Athletic: “The race to trade for Deshaun Watson and pay him $230 million feels…gross.”
Mina Kimes, ESPN: “It says a lot about the NFL’s attitude towards women.”
Rachel Bonnetta, NFL: “I've got no jokes. No comments. Nuthin. Sucks.”
Jackie Kucinich, CNN: “SMH (Shaking My Head) Cleveland.”
Melissa Jacobs, The Guardian: “They (the 22 women) have to stand back and watch him get richer. Zero ramifications.”
In a stunning turn of events, one of the most cynical, shameless transactions in sports history went down on Friday night. The Cleveland Browns acquired quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Texans in exchange for five draft picks, including first-rounders in 2022, 2023 and 2024. The Texans also received a 2023 third- and 2024 fourth-round pick, and the Browns added a 2024 fifth-rounder as part of the deal. Watson then agreed to a new five-year contract worth a record-setting guaranteed $230 million.
The Browns decided it was worth giving up all those assets to acquire a player with 22 sexual assault allegations. Once NFL teams knew Watson wasn’t going to prison after the grand jury non-indictment, a number of teams, including the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints - decided they wanted to make him the face of their franchise and got involved in the Watson sweepstakes. Cleveland won by outbidding everyone else. It leaked out that Cleveland wanted an ‘adult in the room’ to succeed outgoing quarterback Baker Mayfield. Now that feels like a sick joke.
They Don’t Give a Shit As Lindsay Jones outlined in her Athletic column: the truth is that from the moment the first massage therapist filed her lawsuit against Deshaun Watson just over a year ago, this stopped being strictly a football story.
Will Watson and the Browns publicly address his allegations and the fans they will alienate. The optics to women and others is that Watson was rewarded for what he did. The Browns and others in the running have proven they don’t give a shit. Money and wins really matter. Everything else can go hang.
What it says about how all powerful the QB position is stark: greater talent means greater tolerance. Over the weekend, the attorney for the 22 women, who are suing Watson, said no NFL teams have reached out to him or his clients in the course of their efforts to research Watson.
The whole episode shines an unedifying light on the NFL’s fly-by-night attitude to its star players and to women. It seems inevitable that Watson will be suspended - penance for the league’s governing body if not for an unrepentant player. Each season we’re treated to the spectacle of the NFL telling us they care about racism, women and the upstanding behavior of its players. Someone needs to tell commissioner Roger Goodell that Orwellian slogans on helmets and end zones are cheap, just like talk, when the organization continues to fluff its lines on domestic abuse, mobility of black coaches and perceptions among women - 47% of its audience.
For all the focus on the contract and the numbers, let’s not forget the number 22. The number of women who filed civil lawsuits against Watson claiming sexual assault and harassment. The emotional toll on the 22 women accusing him of sexual assault must be brutal. They must have feared that a day like Friday, where the slate has been wiped clean for the accused, would transpire. Selling Their Soul For Success
David Berman, the music icon and poet, once wrote that the people of Cleveland had suffered for so long. Browns fans woke up on Saturday morning, some elated, many bittersweet, others reviled, but perhaps never more divided as a fanbase. Desperate to go all in for a Lombardi Trophy, the Cleveland Browns mortgaged their future and sold their soul for success. Much like the NFL, they might find that society has changed. The human fallout from this decision goes way beyond the city on Lake Erie. Cleveland’s front office is gambling on us all forgetting the news in 9 months time. We need to heed the collective call of the voices in this column, female or otherwise. And that starts with a duty to continue to remind the Browns and the NFL of their decision and to hold them to account.