'Deleting messages' allegation against Deshaun Watson is a cutthroat way to win the narrative

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When it comes to legal matters — civil, criminal, or in Deshaun Watson’s case, even in the workplace version of NFL justice — the best narrative often wins.

Lawyers can wrangle over the law all they want, but the best of them know that juries (including the one-man decisions of Roger Goodell) tend to side with the best, and most plausible, story out there.

This isn’t a secret to Rusty Hardin, who is defending Watson in what is now 19 civil lawsuits from massage therapists who allege sexual assaults of varying degrees. As the suits have mounted — in a damaging drip, drip, drip fashion that keeps the Watson case in the news — Hardin has raged against the plaintiffs’ attorney, Tony Buzbee.

Hardin has accused Buzbee of orchestrating “a circus-like atmosphere,” being purposefully vague in lawsuits in an effort to make investigations difficult.

“We ask only that people not rush to judgment, that people not be unduly influenced by opposing counsel’s antics,” Hardin said in a statement last week.

Buzbee, colorful (to say the least) in his own right, says the lawsuits speak for themselves.

That includes, no doubt, a single line in the filing of Jane Doe 17 on Sunday that was painfully short on details, but guaranteed to create painful headlines for Watson.

“As a result of repeated lawsuits against him, Watson is deleting Instagram messages, and contacting those who formally provided him massages, in an attempt to settle,” the filing stated.

That sentence created plenty of attention for a lawsuit that, because it mirrors so many other allegations against Watson, wouldn’t otherwise stand out as a big story (whether that is fair or not).

Hardin, in a statement, denied both allegations.

“Like a lot of people, Deshaun regularly deletes past Instagram messages,” Hardin said. “That said, he has not deleted any messages since March 15, the day before the lawsuit was filed. We categorically deny that he has reached out directly to his accusers in an attempt to settle these cases.”

The more notable development Monday was the publication of a story from Sports Illustrated that told the story of an unnamed Houston area massage therapist who detailed an aggressive and awkward encounter with Watson last year that was similar to many of the stories contained in the 19 lawsuits. This woman has not filed a suit and is not currently represented by Buzbee.

Reporter Jenny Vrentas cited a review of text messages and social media conversations as well as an interview with a family members of the therapist who relayed a contemporaneous conversation as proof that backed up the story.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) in action during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Deshaun Watson now faces 19 civil lawsuits against him, claiming sexual harassment to varying degrees. (AP)

That signifies the first independently investigated allegation of Watson. SI certainly isn’t the Houston police or the Harris County prosecutor's office, but so far, it is all we have. As such, it’s particularly damning to Watson.

So too, however, is Watson allegedly “deleting Instagram messages.” That was, predictably, perfect fodder for everything from the television news tickers, to website headlines, to social media posts. The allegation alone reeks of guilt.

Why delete messages if you have nothing to hide? If there is no crime, why cover up? And so on.

There is no question that Watson is in a lot of trouble right now. The civil suits aren’t going anywhere. A criminal investigation by police might be underway right now (Houston PD won’t comment) or at least coming. And the NFL, which operates at a very low standard of guilt, has already launched a “review” and been in contact with Buzbee, at least according to Buzbee.

The idea that 19 different women from three different states are all telling similar stories is hugely problematic for Watson. If there is a silver bullet that clears the quarterback, it isn’t obvious. And this entire ordeal could drag out for more than a year — the courts do not care about resolving this prior to, say, next month’s draft so the Houston Texans know Watson’s trade value.

Still, even understanding the severity of the situation, the deleted text message claim is mostly grandstanding at this point. First off, how does Buzbee know that Watson is deleting messages? He doesn’t say.

Attorneys are not required to include all of their evidence in these filings — sometimes they withhold out of a position of weakness, sometimes out of a position of strength and sometimes just because. There is no way to know at this point. It’s worth questioning though.

Second, it doesn’t mention what kinds of messages Watson is deleting. Are these communications with Plaintiffs? Are they incriminating? Who knows? Even if they were directed to the plaintiffs, those women would have the messages, so deleting them likely wouldn’t matter.

Could it be conversations with friends that would somehow show his guilt? Perhaps. That would be significant. It also might be mundane stuff. Again, there is no indication. It’s just left out there, for the public to consume, generally via a prism of guilt.

For a lawyer of Buzbee’s stature, that lack of specificity is not an accident. This is not a typical civil case — both attorneys know that any line in any court filing or statement can immediately become national news. You have to operate under those parameters. You bait the hook and throw it out there.

Then there is the allegation that Watson is “contacting those who formally provided him massages, in an attempt to settle.”

Watson is within his rights to do that. There is no known protective order against him and two parties can almost always directly contact each other and try to work it out. The court prefers such outcomes.

Obviously the idea that he would settle a dispute speaks (at least in the court of public opinion) to some admission of guilt, even if the inevitable agreement (in an actual court of law) does not require an admission of guilt.

This isn’t just impacting any potential jury, but playing to the NFL — which stands as an unusual third “judicial” party that Buzbee can use to his benefit.

Goodell can put Watson on the commissioner’s list or even suspend him for nearly anything, and settling a bunch of sexual assault civil suits would almost certainly lead to that.

The league’s victory in Brady v. NFL, that stemmed from the deflategate controversy involving Tom Brady, reaffirmed Goodell’s explicit disciplinary power according to the collective bargaining agreement.

Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, as the deflategate case weakened, Goodell eventually focused on Brady destroying his cell phone (despite the NFL telling his attorney they didn’t need it) as a key piece in ruling. Brady wound up with a four-game suspension. The league leaked the cell phone destruction to the media before the ruling, setting a narrative Brady has still never recovered from.

That’s how these games are played. And that’s how Tony Buzbee is playing it.

It doesn’t mean Watson is innocent. Nor does it mean he’s guilty. It does mean, as both lawsuits and independent reports continue to flood in, this is getting increasingly cutthroat.

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