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IT’S ELEMENTARY, WATSON — NOTHING DAMAGES THE NFL ANYMORE
Pro football has such a grip on America, the Deshaun Watson suspension compromise — botched as it was by Roger Goodell — will be forgotten soon as fans await the season like addicts itching for fixes
We wonder. Would the NFL, which stands for Never F—ing Loses, also survive an alien invasion, biological warfare, nuclear attacks and looming natural disasters ranging from megafloods to wildfires to Vladimir Putin’s forehead? Maybe not, but this should be noted: Sportsbooks have installed the league as a slight favorite for every related bet.
In all its red, white and blue pluckiness, as fueled by the ego and greed of 32 owners and a handsomely compensated commissioner, The Shield has buried another would-be crisis. There must be Teflon implants inside the logo’s eight stars, the best performance-enhancing drugs known to 21st-century industry. The NFL has carried on through brain-damage upheaval, Ray Rice, the Colin Kaepernick protest movement, the scandals of sinister owners including Daniel Snyder and Stephen Ross, Jon Gruden’s e-mail cesspool and seemingly every possible existential tsunami. So much media and sponsor money is being pumped into a vast reservoir, every franchise is assured of annual profits in the hundreds of millions even if the on-field record is 0-17 and not a soul enters the stadium.
So why would the Deshaun Watson suspension compromise — and his subsequent lack of remorse — leave a dent in the steel, even if more than two dozen female massage therapists accused him of sexually assaulting or harassing them?
Yes, the process was bungled by bossman Roger Goodell, whose first experiment in outsourcing player discipline was a stinker. Why transfer his traditional judge-and-jury powers to a neutral arbitrator, retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson, when the chance existed he wouldn’t be satisfied with her ruling? Sure enough, she issued Watson a soft ban of six games, prompting Goodell to rush in like a justice hero — conspiracy theory: he thought such a timeline could make him look tough against crime — and appoint another, um, neutral arbitrator. But the services of Peter C. Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general, weren’t needed. There still was time for Goodell to do what he does best/worst, help a franchise owner in need, this time a beleaguered Jimmy Haslam in Cleveland.
Rather than wait for a Harvey ruling and see if it concurred with the commissioner’s supposed desired penalty — an indefinite ban entailing at least one full season — Goodell chose to negotiate terms with Watson and the NFL Players Association. Thursday, ending a disgustingly long slog, the league and union reached a settlement: He’ll serve an 11-game suspension and pay a $5 million fine to charity, allowing him to reap all but a minuscule portion of his guaranteed $230 million contract with the Browns, including a $44.9 million signing bonus and $46 million base salary in 2023. The wishy-washy outcome begs the raw question of why the commissioner didn’t simply step in, as permitted under a joint agreement with the union, and punish Watson with the indefinite-ban hammer.
The additional two-week delay allowed Watson just enough time to seek the in-between settlement, helped by an abrupt and months-too-late apology “to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation.” In the end, Goodell tried to satisfy everyone … and satisfied no one … though Watson, rebuked by the league for “egregious” and “predatory behavior,” remains the beneficiary of a too-light sentence. He goes away only until Dec. 4, when he makes his Browns debut — and isn’t this lovely? — in Houston against the Texans, his ex-employers, the team that arranged for some of his massage sessions in a local hotel and provided him with non-disclosure agreements for the women to sign. What was this, a cruel joke on top of another NFL conduct debacle?
It’s another reason for Watson’s two dozen accusers to feel cheated, even the 23 who’ve accepted financial settlements in a misconduct case in which he was not charged with a crime. Also, Watson did himself no favors with a contrition flip-flop. His initial statement, released by the Browns, at least addressed his issues. Hours later, in a press conference, he infuriated more than the alleged victims. “I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I will continue to stand on that,” Watson said. Innocence? As I’ve written all along, there were too many accusers to afford him benefit of the doubt. Innocence? Would the league like to reconsider its decision?
Goodell had some explaining to do, but only issued a statement that avoided the indefinite-ban topic. “Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” he said. “This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine, and a more substantial suspension.”
Haslam and his wife, co-owner Dee Haslam, are more excited than Watson. They also should feel humiliated for life. “As we have previously conveyed, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the NFL and NFLPA structure awaiting a final decision and we have respected the process,” the Haslams said in a statement. “Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, we understand this is a real opportunity to create meaningful change and we are committed to investing in programs in Northeast Ohio that will educate our youth regarding awareness, understanding, and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community.”
So Watson’s stalled career has new life, thanks to a supportive league and franchise. The Browns resume their bleak existence until he returns. Jimmy and Dee fall into the same 2022 sin bin as fellow owners Stephen Ross and Daniel Snyder. And the NFL?
Carrie Underwood is warming up backstage.
“Hey, Jack, it’s a fact. The show’s back in town.”
As the dominant revenue generator in sports — if not the biggest player in the entertainment industry, with the Netflix boom on the wane — the NFL knows the Watson case(s) will be forgotten soon enough. That is, assuming his quickie conquests haven’t already left the brainstreams of fans who don’t care about player conduct once Week One arrives. In spite of itself, the league realizes Americans are hooked on pro football as a legal opioid. This awkward truth confirms America as a mentally unbalanced republic, devoid of a collective conscience. That’s the obvious conclusion when DraftKings wagers and Fanatics jerseys are larger national concerns than the continuing depravity in the ranks.
Nothing damages the NFL. Not bad behavior, not rotten football, nothing. So much is made of broadcasting maneuvers — Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN, Mike Tirico to Sunday nights on NBC, Al Michaels to Amazon, Tom Brady to Fox for $375 million — when the networks really don’t need voices. Goodell’s dirty little secret: People would watch games in silence, which explains why the ManningCast thrives as a conversational adjunct to the living-room experience. Inside a New Orleans prison this week, inmates barricaded themselves and issued demands to officials. They want better food and medicine, but just as importantly, if not more, they need a second TV for Saints games. How gargantuan is this league? A preseason game between Seattle and Pittsburgh on the NFL Network outdrew a Yankees-Red Sox game on Fox, though Fox is available in 40 million more homes.
Only the poor folks in Cleveland, as usual, will be adversely impacted by Watson’s punishment. Jacoby Brissett, the temporary QB, won’t be enough to keep them in playoff contention for three months. The Browns are one of only four teams never to have reached a Super Bowl — though a previous incarnation moved to Baltimore and won a championship as the Ravens, of course — and it’s a good thing Kyrie Irving (he does good things!) hit a jumpshot in 2016 and gave LeBron James an NBA title in his home region. Otherwise, that city would be in Year 58 without a championship in a major sport. With a talented, law-abiding quarterback, the Browns would have been AFC contenders. But the team’s inability to find success at sport’s most essential position led the Haslams, a married couple who should not be owning an NFL franchise, to gamble on a star who wanted more than calf massages.
Their decision, which included a league-record guarantee, is doomed to infamy. Even if Watson resumes elite playmaker status, with his arm and feet, the Haslams have lost the trust of the fans, assuming there was trust to begin with. That has become an epidemic in a league that knows it’s too big to fail, regardless of the owners’ missteps. How will Miami Dolphins fans ever trust Ross after he and other franchise officials openly talked of tanking games for a better draft position, then ignored tampering rules to make contact with Brady and Sean Payton? How will Washington Commanders fans trust Snyder, as if they ever did, amid rampant allegations of sexual harassment in his workplace? Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft — how many dirty, old men are running this league?
The NFLPA made sure, in its defense of Watson, to point out the double standard. Why aren’t the owners subjected to harsher penalties under the Personal Conduct Policy? Jones fired back with usual arrogance, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “It is a standard Players Association comeback. That is the drill. That is the drill to go around to say you didn’t punish such and such. Anybody would know that every player case and every case that involves non-players in the NFL are dealing with dramatically different principle facts, which is all the difference in the world. … That’s called shooting volleys. That’s just shooting stuff over your back.” So why, Jerry, didn’t the league investigate the voyeurism scandal — involving four former Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders who accused longtime Jones publicist Rich Dalrymple of peek-a-boo — that resulted in a $2.4 million settlement?
Now we have the Haslams. Should we be at all surprised, knowing Jimmy Haslam owns a Tennessee-based truck-stop chain, Pilot Flying J, that was nailed in a $50 million fraud scheme? Like Snyder and Ross, they should sell the team, but why would they? The fan base’s disgust with out-of-state ownership doesn’t extend to the team itself. No boycotts have been called. The Browns, after all, are civically entrenched. Not one team sponsor has opted out, reports The Athletic. Remember when Watson was mobbed on the practice field by fans wearing his jersey? “It appears there are way more people renewing than canceling tickets,” Haslam said in one of his few public appearances.
When Watson wins a few games, local amnesia will kick in and replace the public-relations detritus. Just hope no one other than the team’s All-Pro guard, Joel Bitonio, uses the suspension as a rallying cry.
“I'm sure, it seems like more than ever, Cleveland against the world, so we'll be ready for it,” he said.
To be clear, it’s not Cleveland against the world. It’s Deshaun Watson against the world, as it should be. During a preseason game in Jacksonville last week, in his first live action in 19 months, he heard thundering boos from Jaguars fans who peppered him with chants.
“No means no!”
“You sick f---!”
He’ll be hearing those and other choice scoldings in road stadiums the rest of his career, starting in Houston. And the National Football League will keep making massive bank deposits through the noise, as always, awaiting a media negotiation in the early 2030s that will bring twice as much — or three times, or four — than the current $113 billion haul.
Never F—ing Loses, does it?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.