Why did NFL settle with Deshaun Watson? Look at the team owners

As terms of the Deshaun Watson disciplinary settlement became public Thursday, an NFL executive familiar with the Cleveland Browns quarterback posed a question that is bound to linger in the ensuing months. It encapsulated the lengthy path the league carved on its way to the negotiated outcome, a route that went from the NFL’s 19-month pursuit and 215-page investigative report, to an overturned arbitration ruling, to commissioner Roger Goodell embracing words like “egregious” and “predatory” to describe Watson.

“After all that,” the executive asked, “why didn’t [the NFL] drop the hammer?”

The question itself is framed through an opinion. Some in the league — maybe many — see Watson’s 11-game suspension and $5 million fine as proof positive that the NFL pulled back at the very end of the process. Others — many of whom orbit the quarterback — see it as far steeper than the evidence warranted in the sexual assault and misconduct allegations that have followed Watson since March of 2021. But even inside those warring vantage points, there is an undeniable reality coming out of this week. And it's this:

The NFL took control of the Watson case when it appealed the six-game suspension laid down by arbitrator Sue L. Robinson. For all intents and purposes, it controlled the end of the disciplinary process from the moment it hand-selected former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who has deep ties to the league, to deliver a final verdict. From that point, everyone in Watson’s camp expected a home-cooked result was in the pipeline. It meant if the NFL wanted an indefinite one-year suspension, that was going to be the result.

Yet right when the league appeared poised to dictate that outcome, to have its “drop-the-hammer” moment, it instead cut a deal. Rather than a one-year ban that would have pushed Watson’s entire contract back a year, potentially costing $40 million or more by shaving another season off his prime earning years, it settled and kept Watson’s extension on schedule.

The question of "why?" hangs in the wind.

Deshaun Watson told reporters Thursday that he stood on his innocence. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)
Deshaun Watson told reporters Thursday that he stood on his innocence. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images) (Nick Cammett via Getty Images)

Why NFL chose 11 games for Watson vs. having team owners being called out

The league had the control of the disciplinary process that it wanted. And Goodell made clear what the NFL thought of Watson’s alleged behavior. Not only did it say Watson committed sexual assault (by the league’s definition, not necessarily by criminal definition), but it painted him as unremorseful, predatory and acting in a way that endangered the “well-being” of the four women accusers whose allegations were presented in the disciplinary process.

And on top of it all, the NFL leaked the goal of a one-year suspension, plus a monetary fine. That’s not the kind of thing done when the final plan is to turn around and negotiate something less after taking control of the process, especially when there isn’t any provision preventing Watson and his representation from signing a settlement and then proclaiming that the quarterback is innocent and the deal is just a tool to move forward with his career.

Yet here we are, in that precise space, with the NFL having cut a deal and Watson sending mixed messages about his responsibility in all of this. On Watson’s side of the fence, the compromise makes sense. His camp and the union lacked the final control of the process and an immense amount of future salary was on the line. On the NFL’s side, the deal appeared to make less sense. Unless there was a reason that wasn’t readily obvious.

In the end, I believe there was.

After talking to a handful of sources who played a part in the arbitration process — including reading through the briefs that changed hands — I think Goodell and the league’s owners didn’t want to risk what might happen on the other side of a one-year Watson suspension. Here’s why.

First and foremost, I believe the league’s full suspension of Watson and an even more significant financial fine would have triggered another drawn-out attempt at cracking the league’s disciplinary dynamic in a federal jurisdiction. While that litigation would have likely been unsuccessful, it wouldn’t have come without a financial cost and additional public-relations distractions. And for those who haven’t been paying attention, the league’s legal bills are believed to be considerably spiraling.

And, second, the league’s team owners could have risked a public-relations napalming from the NFL Players Association, which until the Watson case had been quietly seething over the NFL's track record of investigations, specifically the aggression and follow-through displayed by the league’s investigators when players (not just Watson) face allegations versus when franchise owners find themselves in legal or moral trouble.

The last thing the NFL wants is someone building a decades-long list of every potential violation of the personal-conduct policy committed during the tenure of every club owner in the league. There’s a chance that could have happened if Watson had been suspended for a year. And I think the motivation for it was fueled by Robinson’s decision, which vividly painted the NFL as a corporation that is creating standards of player justice as it goes along.

Legal cases are mounting for NFL, and its price tag matters

Most fans might not care about that kind of thing when it comes to the league’s internal judicial process. Especially when it’s centered on a quarterback who faced the kind of civil allegations that Watson faced. But the union cares, because every single case like this sets a standard for how the next player is treated. Just as every investigation into a team owner that fades into the background sets a standard for how franchise owners are treated.

There’s little question that such a disparity exists, especially when an owner like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones can cut a $2.4 million settlement with former cheerleaders over a workplace incident and move on like it never happened. Or Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder can be accused of — well, a hell of a lot — and face consequences that don’t seem very consequential at all. That’s two prominent team owners. Imagine a motivated adversary engaging in a significant deep dive into the other 30 teams in the league, and then showcasing all the league investigations that never took place.

None of which gets into the litany of other things that have been going on this offseason, such as: the NFL being forced into a $790 million settlement with the city of St. Louis over the Rams' relocation; Goodell being called to testify before Congress about a wasteland of Snyder allegations; Jon Gruden filing a lawsuit against the league that has become a serious threat; the city of Oakland trying to take the league in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in an antitrust case; the league recently reaching a settlement after a particularly disgusting revelation of "race norming" in concussion settlements; and former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores still having a pending class-action lawsuit against the league over racial discrimination.

Surely, I have left some litigation out. But you get the point.

All of this served as an undercurrent to the league’s decision to exit the Deshaun Watson disciplinary fight when it became tolerable to do so. When push came to shove, the league’s team owners didn’t want any part of it dragging on. They didn’t want the headlines. They didn’t want the attention. They didn’t want the shared legal bills or unforeseen headaches.

What they wanted was to get it over with and move on to actual football. And that’s exactly what Goodell and the settlement gave them.