Intended or not, MLB’s two-year suspension of former Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer is now hovering over the NFL and Deshaun Watson.
While one league’s standards of conduct and sanctioning guidelines have nothing to do with the other, both are linked in the court of public opinion, particularly where it concerns each league’s handling of Bauer and Watson. They're two of the highest-profile athletes in American sports to recently face disturbing allegations of violence and misconduct against women.
Thus far, the NFL’s handling of the Watson accusations has alternated between opaque and curious, now lingering five weeks since separate grand jury proceedings against the quarterback wrapped in Texas without indictments. Initially, it was expected that the closing of Watson’s criminal docket would spur momentum in the league’s personal conduct probe. But commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday league investigators are still working and there is “no timetable” for a conclusion.
In the absence of that timeline, MLB has now provided a template for the NFL to consider, suspending Bauer for two years in the wake of multiple women alleging violence against the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher. The decision came after MLB allowed for a February conclusion of a five-month police investigation into Bauer, which resulted in no charges filed against him. Roughly 10 weeks later, MLB concluded its own investigation into Bauer’s conduct and delivered a suspension that echoed throughout the sports world this past week.
Nowhere outside of baseball did those echoes resonate more loudly than the NFL’s league office, which is mounting a Watson investigation that could drag into 2023. Watson is currently facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging a range of sexual misconduct or sexual assault. Watson has already begun sitting for depositions in the cases and NFL investigators could obtain them, as they have not currently been sealed by the presiding judges.
While the Bauer and Watson investigations are not necessarily apples to apples, both necessitate judgments in the absence of criminal charges. Unlike Watson, Bauer has not faced civil litigation stemming from the allegations against him — which means he also hasn’t been seated for depositions that could have provided additional information for investigators. That likely played into MLB making a more swift decision with Bauer’s status than the NFL could end up making with Watson.
Timeline aside, the NFL now must grapple with MLB setting a significant suspension example for behavior that wasn’t charged criminally. Baseball has made it clear the decision was made on the merit of its own investigation and interviews with the women who have made allegations against Bauer.
That’s essentially the same space the NFL is occupying with Watson. The league has already conducted interviews with multiple women who have filed civil lawsuits against him, and it has the depositions and discovery from civil proceedings that MLB didn’t, which can aid whatever decision ultimately comes down the pipeline. In theory, the NFL should have more information than baseball ever did with Bauer.
That will create some pressure on the NFL from an optics standpoint. While an independent arbitrator will decide whether or not Watson committed a personal conduct violation, Goodell and the league still control the length of any ensuing suspension. So it’s not as simple as a six-game suspension under the NFL’s violence against women guidelines, though it will likely draw a fight from the NFL Players Association all the same.
In the court of public opinion, that doesn’t just pit Goodell against Watson in terms of making a statement or setting a personal conduct example. It also lines him up against MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the Bauer decision. If an arbitrator determines a personal conduct violation occurred with Watson, Goodell could simply issue a six-game suspension and label it as a first-time violation of the league’s domestic violence policy. Then again, he could look at each of the 22 civil complaints against Watson and determine if each should be considered its own violation, opening the possibility of a much longer suspension due to additional factors.
This is what's waiting for Goodell now. Not just the conclusion of the league’s investigation into Watson, but how the NFL will ultimately shape its response to the findings. One month ago, there was no real measuring stick, as this represents one of the most concerning sets of allegations against a player in league history.
Now there is a measuring stick. MLB provided it. When the Watson probe concludes, the NFL will have to decide whether it wants to pay attention to it.