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WATSON’S CREEPY PARDON: NFL TEAMS KEEP SELLING SOULS TO WIN
It didn’t faze four franchises that the dazzling quarterback is accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women, with Browns boss Jimmy Haslam recklessly guaranteeing the lawsuit-burdened star a record $230M
It’s elementary, my dear Watson. All punishment in life is selective, in particular when it involves a spectacular performer at the most important position in team sports. If the person in question was Dee Unremarkable or Shaun Nondescript, he’d be purged by the NFL and likely headed to prison, having been accused of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct by 22 women who say he wanted more than back massages.
But because his name is Deshaun Watson and he happens to be one of the best seven or eight quarterbacks on Earth — with a decade of prime seasons ahead at age 26 — the Cleveland Browns are ignoring a barrage of civil lawsuits and outbidding three other franchises for his services. They are giving him a contract for a straight-up $230 million over five years, the largest amount guaranteed to a player in league history.
Alleged crime pays, apparently.
“Cleveland, LETSSSS GOOOO!! #DawgPound Ready To Work!" Watson greeted his new city in an Instagram post.
It’s yet another deplorable commentary about a league that claims to emphasize high character and promises to condemn bad actors — but only when circumstances fit its preferred narrative. As a magical playmaker who drives ratings, sells tickets, generates buzz and excites gamblers, Watson is too essential to the NFL experience to be summarily shunned or, heaven forbid, cancelled. He is part of a protected species, even when it’s difficult to fathom that 22 women collaborated to contrive similar stories about him and what goes on under his loose towel. The world, I do realize, is chaotic, opportunistic and filled with celebrity-stalking lawyers.
But unlike other he-said/she-said legal cases that have come across the desk of commissioner Roger Goodell, Watson’s accusers number well into double figures. And the claims are too elaborate and disturbing to ignore. Eighteen of the 22 women say he appropriately touched them with his penis. Two say he forced them to perform oral sex on him. Four say he ejaculated on them and two others say he did so in front of them. Four say he groped them. Was he a horny creep who used his weekly bumps and bruises to prey upon professional massage therapists?
Just because a Texas grand jury declined to indict Watson doesn’t mean he won’t lose in civil court. Only in a twisted world does a prominent athlete find significant trouble with the law, then find a $48-million raise awaiting him despite more courtroom drama in the offing. So much for the vow of an improved culture in Cleveland under owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who say they want a progressive, safe, accountable workplace. They even refused to take no for an answer, when Watson rejected them Thursday, and raised his contract amount to a record level while relinquishing an absurd haul: three No. 1 draft picks, a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick.
This almost surpasses the package shipped from Denver to Seattle in the megadeal for Russell Wilson. If that trade only reinforced the gravity of having a top-flight quarterback in the building — and the willingness to open the floodgates to acquire him — the Watson deal shows how owners will sell their souls to the netherworld. The grand jury barely had reached its ruling before the line formed around the offseason block for Watson: New Orleans, Carolina, Atlanta, Cleveland. In the process, all those teams did was launch public-relations nightmares in their cities, debates over whether an alleged serial sex criminal should be the face of a franchise.
The Haslams don’t care. They wanted their targeted game-changer, even if he’d ax-murdered 10 people. These are the same people accused by their former coach, Hue Jackson, of tanking seasons. It’s part of an NFL wave of bad ownership behavior including accusations that Jerry Jones protected his peeping-tom publicist and paid off a woman in 1996 to conceal his love child; Stephen Ross offered Brian Flores a $100,000 payoff for every game he lost; and Daniel Snyder enabled a culture of sexual harassment.
All that matters, in their sphere of hubris and greed, is out-conniving the competition to win a Super Bowl. The public-service announcements and pledges about a respectful workplace are b.s. The Browns finally have their franchise quarterback, at the steep price of human decency, and merrily are telling Baker Mayfield and his wife that they no longer can live and make meals inside the stadium. Mayfield is flawed as a QB and leader, but at least he has stayed off the police blotter as a pro. Watson, who has resumed speaking to reporters, must devote substantial time toward image rehabilitation.
“I’m just going to keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community," he said after the grand jury decision. “It's definitely a very emotional moment for me. I know we're far from being done of handling what we need to handle (legally). I thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for letting the truth be heard."
While Mayfield moves on to a franchise settling for his self-promotional mediocrity — Indianapolis will long for the departed Carson Wentz after a full season with Baker the turnover maker — Watson heads to an organization that believes it’s an instant AFC contender. Not so fast. Though he wasn’t convicted by the grand jury, he’ll surely be suspended by a league that has banned several stars despite an absence of criminal charges, including Ben Roethlisberger, Ezekiel Elliott, Jameis Winston and Kareem Hunt. If Watson is banned for six games and appeals his punishment down to four games, his absence still will disrupt Cleveland’s season. He’ll also be spending considerable time defending himself in the 22 active civil cases. Not that any of it impacts his bottom line, with the Haslams agreeing to terms that won’t void his guarantees or cost him bonus money for games lost to suspension. He’ll take home the full value of the contract, regardless of league penalties.
“We have been closely monitoring all developments in the matter,’’ a league spokesperson said. "Any transaction has no effect on the NFL's ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson.”
The NFL, if you haven’t noticed, monitors what it wants to monitor. From the moment the sordid stories broke in Houston, the sense was the league would wait out the judicial process instead of casting aspersions on a valuable asset. They’re celebrating in Cleveland because they don’t know better. The songs of joy should be sung in the cities that didn’t get Watson.
Shattering a salary ceiling is part of today’s NFL, the most prosperous and popular league in the history of this planet. But shouldn’t it make the Browns just a wee bit queasy that they’ve guaranteed record sums to an athlete who, every time he needs a massage, becomes a person of interest in a potential police case.
Certainly, Sherlock Holmes would be interested.
If not sickened.
Jay Mariotti, called “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.