The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deshaun Watson is taking a stand against disingenuous NFL owners. It could change the league.

Deshaun Watson soured on the Texans after not being sufficiently involved in Houston’s organizational makeover. (Ed Zurga/AP)

Deshaun Watson, just 25 years old, grew up too fast for the Houston Texans. He sees them now for the inept franchise they are, just as he sees an NFL that is not all fun, football and riches. His saga, which has escalated to the trade request and staredown phase, is a bizarre case of a team draining its young superstar’s idealism in record time.

How it happened is not a mystery, though. It’s as simple as a broken promise: With a coach and general manager to hire, Texans chairman Cal McNair had pledged to make Watson a part of the process to reconstruct the front office. McNair misled him. Watson fumed.

The resulting discord could be viewed as isolated drama, the result of McNair’s struggles replacing his father, Bob, and the rise in the organization of Jack Easterby, who has gone from an appreciated chaplain and character coach in New England to just a character doing damage in Houston. Instead, consider it emblematic of what the past year has reaped in the NFL: a player awakening that owners should acknowledge and respect rather than trivialize the men who enliven the sport.

His team is going to the Super Bowl. He’s staying on the coronavirus front lines.

In truth, the Texans’ behavior this season tells us plenty about the NFL’s preset dehumanization, even if this franchise is particularly unstable, cycling through star players, general managers, coaches, media relations executives. In March, former coach Bill O’Brien traded mesmerizing wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for a cactus and a Grand Canyon day pass. Hopkins wasn’t an invaluable superstar to O’Brien; the coach just saw him as an asset with an attitude. O’Brien is back in college as the Alabama offensive coordinator now.

The Texans have been dysfunctional since Watson arrived in 2017. Through it all, he kept the franchise relevant and became one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Before this season succumbed to a 4-12 disaster, Watson had guided Houston to a 24-13 record and two playoff appearances as a starter. In September, the franchise signed him to a four-year, $156 million contract extension that included $74.9 million guaranteed, making him the league’s second-highest-paid player.

Five months later, Watson wants to be as far away from the Texans as he can get. Refrain from considering him disloyal or spoiled. He’s wise to give up hope.

During Watson’s rookie year, late owner Bob McNair made his infamous remark about player protests, detailed in an ESPN investigation, lamenting during an owners meeting, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Soon after, he apologized. Then, about six months later in April 2018, McNair revisited the controversy and told the Wall Street Journal, “The main thing I regret is apologizing.”

He died seven months later, but the organizational mentality remains the same. Early in his career, Watson was trying to establish himself and was unwilling to call out the man who made him a millionaire. But like many young Black Americans, he has found his nerve and his voice during this difficult and tense time.

Before the coronavirus segregated the world, Watson spent the 2019 offseason traveling with his friend and quarterback trainer, Quincy Avery, visiting six countries and expanding his mind. He wasn’t just the kid from Gainesville, Ga., anymore. The former Clemson star was growing into himself. As the conversations about racial injustice grew more intense and the examples of inhumanity became more pronounced and horrifying, he knew he couldn’t remain a passive observer, especially when his sport needed to do some soul-searching.

Eight months ago, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered a post-George Floyd mea culpa for how the NFL had handled player protests against police brutality, the mixed reaction included surprise over Goodell’s admission, skepticism about his sincerity and a thought that his words provided fodder to hold the owners, his bosses, accountable.

The focus was on the perceived changing attitude about the protests, but because Goodell’s remarks came in response to a video by several of the league’s ascending franchise players — Watson and Patrick Mahomes among them — there was hope of a shifting dynamic. Players were learning how to transform their influence into power. It challenged owners to forge a truer partnership and, perhaps in some situations, cede a few ounces of their control.

The NFL, looking to improve minority hiring, ends cycle with same number of Black coaches

But Cal McNair only pretended to deliver on that vision at a time when his best player was thinking deeply about systemic inequality. The Texans are a mess, and they can’t pacify Watson with a ton of money and a few compliments. They diminished his enthusiasm one foolish decision at a time. They have broken one promise too many.

When NFL teams speak, they have gotten better at saying the right things. But when they act, most of them show they’re part of the same ol’ NFL. The institutions mean more than the people who assume so much risk.

Even in trying to express Watson’s value, new Houston general manager Nick Caserio spoke in cold terms when he said last week, “We have zero interest in trading the player.” It was so inspiring that Watson probably got rid of the rest of his Texans attire. And the 20-plus teams that would love to have “the player” probably took Caserio’s words to mean, “The bidding starts at wow.”

It’s unlikely that this saga will last long because the offers for Watson, so accomplished and so young, figure to be too enticing for Houston to dismiss. The Texans need to rebuild more than they need to make some point about obedience. They could make things difficult, but they’re better off moving forward and letting Caserio become the latest New England product to try to replicate the Patriots’ way. If he’s not smarter and more imaginative than previous facsimiles, he will fail. But, hey, at least the Watson trade should bring in a historic haul.

For a short and happy time to start his career, Watson did everything right. He became an ideal franchise player to pair with defensive end J.J. Watt. He gave Houston his body, tearing the ACL in his right knee his rookie year, ranking among the most sacked quarterbacks every season, hanging in there and absorbing hits to make plays. But he was not willing to ignore that, through their actions, the Texans showed little respect for his mind.

They didn’t care enough about diversity or fit in reshaping the organization. It wasn’t like Watson made any specific demands. He just wanted a voice, and he thought he had Cal McNair’s ear. But he found out he will always be “the player.”

More than the outcome of Super Bowl LV, this tale of distrust stands as the most revelatory closing event of a heavy season. Watson is disillusioned and adamant that something better exists in the NFL. Even though McNair has tried to smooth things over, Watson appears done.

For owners, it’s an uncomfortable tone-setter. In this fascinating new era, there are consequences for their disingenuous dealings.