as terms of the deshaun watson disciplinary agreement was made public Thursday, an NFL executive familiar with the cleveland browns The quarterback raised a question that is sure to linger for months to come. He summed up the long road the league had traversed on its way to a negotiated outcome, a route that went from the NFL’s 19-month manhunt and 215-page investigative report, to an overturned arbitration award, to commissioner Roger Goodell hugging words as “heinous” and “predatory” to describe Watson.
“After all that,” asked the executive, “why not [the NFL] drop the hammer?
The question itself is framed through an opinion. Some in the league, perhaps many, see Watson’s 11-game suspension and $5 million fine as proof positive that the NFL backed out at the end of the process. Others, many of whom orbit the quarterback, see him as much steeper than the evidence substantiated in the sexual assault and misconduct allegations that have followed Watson since March 2021. But even within those conflicting views , there is an undeniable reality that emerges from this week. And it is this:
The NFL took control of the Watson case when appealed six-game suspension established by referee Sue L. Robinson. For all intents and purposes, she controlled the end of the disciplinary process from the moment she personally selected former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who has deep ties to the league, to deliver a final verdict. From that point on, everyone in the Watson camp expected a home run result to be set up. It meant that if the NFL wanted a one-year indefinite suspension, that would be the outcome.
Yet just when the league seemed poised to dictate that outcome, to have its “drop the hammer” moment, it instead struck a deal. Instead of a one-year suspension that would have delayed Watson’s entire contract a year, potentially costing $40 million or more by removing another season from his best earning years, Watson’s extension was settled and kept on schedule. .
The question of “why?” hangs in the wind.
Why did the NFL choose 11 games for Watson instead of calling team owners?
The league was in control of the disciplinary process it wanted. And Goodell made clear what the NFL thought about Watson’s alleged behavior. Not only did he say Watson committed sexual assault (by the league’s definition, not necessarily by the criminal definition), but he described Watson as a remorseless predator and acting in a way that endangered the “well-being” of all four. accusers whose accusations were presented in the disciplinary process.
And on top of it all, the NFL leaked the goal of a one-year suspension, plus a monetary fine. That’s not the kind of thing you do when the ultimate plan is to turn around and negotiate something less after take control of the process, especially when there is no provision that prevents Watson and his or her representation from signing an agreement and then proclaiming that the quarterback is innocent and the deal is just a tool to further his career.
Yet here we are, in that precise space, with the NFL coming to terms and Watson sending mixed messages about his responsibility in all of this. On Watson’s side of the fence, the compromise makes sense. His field and his union lacked ultimate control of the process and an immense amount of future salary was at stake. On the NFL side, the deal seemed to make less sense. Unless there was a reason that wasn’t readily obvious.
In the end, I think there was.
After speaking with a handful of sources who played a role in the arbitration process, including reading the reports that they changed hands, I think Goodell and the league owners didn’t want to risk what could happen on the other side of one year. Watson suspension. This is why.
First, I believe the league’s full suspension of Watson and an even more significant financial penalty would have triggered another protracted attempt to break the league’s disciplinary dynamic in a federal jurisdiction. While such litigation likely would not have been successful, it would not have occurred without additional financial cost and public relations distractions. And for those who haven’t been paying attention, the league’s legal bills are thought to be rising sharply.
And second, the league’s team owners could have taken a chance that the NFL Players Association’s public relations, which until the Watson case, had been quietly simmering over the NFL’s investigative history. , specifically the aggression and following displayed by members of the league. investigators when players (not just Watson) face accusations versus when franchise owners find themselves in legal or moral trouble.
The last thing the NFL wants is for someone to build a decades-long list of every potential personal conduct policy violation committed during the tenure of every club owner in the league. There’s a chance that would have happened if Watson had been suspended for a year. And I think the motivation for that was fueled by Robinson’s decision, which vividly described the NFL as a corporation that is creating standards of fairness for players as it goes along.
Legal cases are on the rise for the NFL, and their price is important
Most fans might not care about that sort of thing when it comes to the league’s internal court process. Especially when it focuses on a quarterback who faced the kind of civil charges Watson faced. But the union cares, because every case like this sets a standard for how the next player is treated. Just as every investigation into a team owner fading into the background sets a standard for how franchise owners are treated.
There’s no question that such a disparity exists, especially when an owner like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys can reached a $2.4 million settlement with former cheerleaders for a workplace incident and move on as if it never happened. Or Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder can be charged with: well, a lot —and face consequences that don’t seem very important at all. Those are two prominent team owners. Imagine a motivated adversary who engages in a significant deep dive into the other 30 teams in the league and then shows off all the league investigations that never took place.
None of which enter the litany of other things that have been happening this offseason, like: The NFL was forced to pay $790 million agreement with the city of St. Louis on the relocation of the Rams; Goodell being called to testify before Congress about a wasteland of Snyder accusations; Jon Gruden filing a lawsuit against the league that has become a serious threat; the city of Oakland trying to take the league in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in an antitrust case; the league recently reached an agreement after a particular Disgusting revelation of ‘racial norms’ in concussion deals; and former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores still has pending class action lawsuit against the league for racial discrimination.
Surely, I have left some litigation out. But you get the point.
All of this served as background for the league’s decision to pull out of the disciplinary fight against Deshaun Watson when it became tolerable to do so. When the moment of truth arrived, the owners of the teams in the league did not want anything to drag on. They didn’t want the headlines. They didn’t want the attention. They didn’t want shared legal bills or unforeseen headaches.
What they wanted was to end this and move on to real football. And that’s exactly what Goodell and the deal gave them.