Gene Frenette: NFL can't be soft on Deshaun Watson, punishment has to be meaningful

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As the evidence continues piling up against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson over allegations of sexual misconduct with two dozen massage therapists, it'd be a terrible stain on the NFL if he received anything less than a one-year suspension.
As the evidence continues piling up against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson over allegations of sexual misconduct with two dozen massage therapists, it'd be a terrible stain on the NFL if he received anything less than a one-year suspension.

The legal drama surrounding embattled Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is a dark cloud hovering over the NFL that can’t go away soon enough.

Most of it now revolves around the answer to one simple question: how much punishment should Watson receive for sullying the reputation of himself and the league over sexual misconduct allegations made by 24 massage therapists?

The charges have piled up in the last 15 months and continue casting him, as well as the Browns and his former employer, the Houston Texans, in a highly unfavorable light.

A hearing conducted by Sue Robinson, jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA to serve as disciplinary officer, was scheduled to begin Tuesday with no timetable set for any kind of punishment.

But considering multiple media reports that the NFL is seeking a penalty of at least a one-year suspension, or possibly an indefinite one that could keep Watson sidelined into the 2023 season, the Browns quarterback is clearly staring at significant time away from football.

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Frankly, he deserves the hammer to come down on him for such unbecoming behavior. The chances of anybody, rich public figure or otherwise, being subjected to two dozen civil suits making similar accusations without having done anything highly questionable or punishable are incredibly slim.

This has been going on since Ashley Solis, the first of 24 women to file suit in March, 2021, came forward and later went public with her comments to HBO about what Watson did in his therapy sessions. It compelled other women to also file suit with their tales of repulsive behavior from the star quarterback.

No need to go into the well-documented, sordid details about what Watson allegedly did with his male organ in these sessions or the inappropriate requests he made of many therapists.

Furthermore, the news came down Monday that the Texans are being sued for their role in Watson’s sexual misconduct cases. A suit filed by massage therapist Toi Garner contends that, beyond Watson engaging in disgusting behavior at their session, he brought a nondisclosure agreement provided to him by the Texans.

How much more smoke has to emerge from Watson’s escapades with therapists before we reach the inevitable conclusion that a real fire is erupting?

NFL can't go easy on Deshaun Watson

If the NFL is serious about standing behind women and victims of abuse, then the minimum suspension should be one year, and possibly a lot more. The NFLPA will likely appeal any kind of punishment, but if the league capitulates in any way on Watson, it only reinforces a long-standing societal problem that star athletes get preferential treatment.

After all, why else would the Browns guarantee such an obscene amount of money to a quarterback right after two grand juries declined to criminally charge him with anything?

The NFL, already burdened with the PR nightmare hovering over Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, can ill afford to come out looking like it’s giving Watson any kind of wrist slap.

Remember, this is the same league and commissioner, Roger Goodell, that was publicly embarrassed in 2014 for not initially giving a heavier punishment than a two-game suspension to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was later seen on video shown on TMZ punching his future wife and dragging her by the hair out of an elevator.

The NFL also didn’t get high marks for handing down just an eight-game suspension to running back Kareem Hunt, ironically later signed by the Browns, for shoving a woman to the ground and kicking her.

Watson’s case is nothing like the NFL has ever seen in its disciplinary history. This is an ascending, two-time Pro Bowl quarterback — an elite player with a previously solid character record and the potential to transform a franchise — being accused by two dozen massage therapists of reprehensible acts of unwanted advances.

It has left Cleveland Browns fans, starving for so long to have a consistent winning team, struggling to process the wide range of emotions over how to deal with a polarizing free-agent QB acquisition they know could elevate their team into a Super Bowl contender.

“[Watson] is the one elite franchise-type quarterback they’ve never had in the expansion era, but there’s no joy or celebration around it because of everything else going on,” said Tony Grossi, who has covered the Browns for several decades for multiple Cleveland media outlets.

“It’s conflicting and polarizing for the fan base, not just between men and women. It’s a polarized fan base between the fanatics that just want to see him play and those that do care [about sexual misconduct allegations].”

At this point, it’s nearly impossible to conjure up any sympathy for a player who, despite proclaiming his innocence, stands accused of so many creepy allegations and has already settled 20 of the 24 cases against him.

Dungy: 'Not a good look for our game'

Why would an innocent man — even one who can well afford paying up after the Browns foolishly signed him to a $230 million guaranteed contract — settle with these women and pay up, thus leaving the lingering impression that he’s guilty and also damage his public image?

If that’s not enough to make Watson look like he engaged in iniquitous behavior, he sent a documented text message to one of the four accusers who chose not to settle, Solis, to apologize for making her feel uncomfortable after one of their sessions ended with her crying.

What exactly was Watson expressing contrition over if he did nothing wrong

Furthermore, why does anybody need 24 different female massage therapists, a light number, as the New York Times reported, considering the Browns’ quarterback hired 66 over an 18-month period?

Most people who find a plumber, electrician or auto repair shop that provides quality service tends to stick with them, so Watson feeling compelled to have a small army of female massage therapists only adds to one of the most incongruous discipline cases to ever hit the NFL.

“It could be precedent-setting,” NBC analyst and Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said of the Watson case. “I haven’t followed all the exact details, but what’ll be interesting is to see if what happens to Watson [in terms of punishment] holds true in the future for owners and front-office people. That could be a slippery slope there.

“If Watson gets a severe penalty, then what’s the standard you’re holding yourselves to? This isn’t good for Watson, the NFL or the Browns. It’s not a good look for our game."

There’s little debate the Browns’ quarterback made some embarrassingly bad choices, many of which cut right to the heart of why the NFL tries to impose consequences for violating its personal conduct policy.

Watson never played a down last season because the Houston Texans, now accused of enabling his behavior, were too ashamed to put him on the field.

In a case where everybody is watching, we’ll see if the NFL takes meaningful action on its claim about supporting women and victims of abuse with a significant penalty. Watson serving anything less than a year’s suspension would just seem like more lip service.

And if a one-year exile is all Deshaun Watson gets, he should still consider himself lucky. Colin Kaepernick got a lot more down time for merely being a peaceful protestor.

Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540 

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Deshaun Watson deserves at least a one-year suspension from NFL