aRoger Goodell always takes the heat when the NFL botches a disciplinary matter. Which makes sense because he is certainly not without fault. And he makes $64 million a year to take the incoming fire for The Shield. But go back through the litany of past controversies and failures. Deflategate, Spygate, Josh Brown, Tyreek Hill, Ray Rice, Daniel Snyder, et al. You will find another common thread.
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar behemoth that seemingly enlists an army of Barney Fifes to do its fact-finding. Time and time again the league office (and its 32 teams) turn to the Fisher-Price investigative kit and act shocked when the anvil falls out of the sky and onto their heads.
The NFL can’t get readily-available police records and public documents before reporters. Can’t get the security camera tape before TMZ. It loses all critical thinking capability when the idea of transparency is on the table. These investigative failings have contributed to bad (and non-) rulings, which in-turn have damaged the reputations of the commissioner’s office and league while leading to the collectively-bargained kangaroo court that has delivered the disgraceful initial Deshaun Watson verdict of a six-game suspension. After the NFL fumbled again, of course.
Watson has faced 24 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct with massage therapists. The New York Times has reported he used over 60 massage therapists in a year and a half. Accusations were considered by two grand juries. And while both declined to indict him, a detective who investigated Watson said in a deposition she believed he committed crimes.
And then comes this passage from NFL disciplinary officer Judge Sue L. Robinson in her findings report (the report can be read here in full):
The NFL’s investigation was conducted by two former prosecutors with decades of experience investigating sexual assault cases. Although Mr. Watson allegedly worked with more than 60 massage therapists during the 15-month period beginning in the fall of 2019 through the winter of 2021, the NFL only investigated the claims of the 24 therapists suing Mr. Watson for damages. Of these 24 complainants, the NFL investigators were only able to interview 12; of those 12, the NFL relied for its conclusions on the testimony of [four] therapists (“the therapists”), as well as interviews of some 37 other third parties and substantial documentary evidence.
Again: 60-plus massage therapists. 24 civil lawsuits. Two grand juries. And the NFL managed to interview 12 complainants and present four accounts in its argument. A fifth was thrown out of consideration because the league only produced media reporting. Which seems like a strategy no experienced prosecutor would deploy?
That is not good enough when faced with such brazen allegations. And even when the overwhelming evidence should have still bailed the NFL out, it appears to have misfired again.
Robinson more or less agreed with everything the NFL said in her report. But the league’s puzzling inability to argue Watson was a repeat offender, rather than have all his allegations considered as one event, allowed Robinson to engage in mental and procedural gymnastics in an all-out effort to straddle the fence between her two employers — the league and the NFLPA.
Robinson writes “the record demonstrates that Mr. Watson had a reckless disregard for the consequences of his conduct, which I find equivalent to intentional conduct” in a footnote. She states the NFL “has carried its burden to prove … that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four
therapists identified in the report” and that “Mr. Watson’s conduct posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.” And then she writes:
It is undisputed that Mr. Watson’s conduct does not fall into the category of violent conduct that would require the minimum [six-game] suspension. It likewise is undisputed that 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 [three-game] suspension for a player who had been previously warned about his conduct.
While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct, 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 off, the concept of “non-violent” sexual assault is ridiculous. Robinson should be disqualified from continuing her job for putting such nonsense into print. The fact she goes on to say Watson had no remorse, was untruthful in his testimony and can no longer get massages outside of team employees makes the ruling even more nonsensical.
Robinson validated everything the NFL argued. She came right to the line of declaring Watson as guilty as she can. And then she clearly efforts to pinpoint the right number of games the NFLPA will accept without making moves to take her plum job away from her. The NFL made that cop-out available to her because its cannot leave no doubt or stone unturned.
The NFL has the right to appeal, and that seems likely. The only reason not to appeal would be if the league tries to play defense against more Snyder-Commanders misdeeds spilling into the open.
In the event of an appeal, Goodell takes power and will almost certainly drop the hammer on Watson, suspending him for a year. Which the league argued for to Robinson, and which Watson deserves (if not more). Then the NFL should hit Watson with a massive fine — $10 million is a good starting point — and investigate the Browns’ intentions when structuring his salary to try to beat a ban. If there is a violation there, Goodell needs to torch Jimmy and Dee Haslam too.
If and when the NFL hands down a harsher punishment, an ugly legal battle will break out. Watson and the NFLPA will not back down. But the NFL will win in the end, because the CBA clearly gives it the right to punish Watson as it sees fit. It just might take a while and allow Watson to play for the time being. It may require the Supreme Court’s intervention. And it will almost assuredly cost millions in billable hours. But that’s what the NFL gets for failing to block and tackle. And will continue to get until it finally gets all corners of its house in order.
James Kratch can be reached at [email protected]