While Watson, the fourth-highest-paid player in the most-watched American league, faces a criminal investigation and 22 civil lawsuits from women who claim he harassed or assaulted them during massages, the NFL sits and waits. Maybe for the conclusion of the league’s own investigation into the matter, led by Lisa Friel, a former chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Maybe for a Harris County grand jury to determine whether there’s enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Watson.
Or maybe the NFL, per usual, is putting off any judgment until the winds of popular opinion make the public outrage so piercing, so unavoidable that Roger Goodell has to feign competency on moral decisions and actually take a stand.
For years, that has been the context required for the NFL to make a business decision and weigh in on matters concerning its players and alleged violence or abuse against women. If a damaging video leaks or pundits on television complain loudly enough, then in swoops the NFL to dole out discipline.
This is hardly about doing the right thing. It’s all about image and hitting the right PR notes. With Watson, the NFL has reverted to its standard operating procedure: Do nothing until it’s absolutely necessary.
Watson, who has denied the allegations, remains on the Texans’ 53-man roster and the trading block — his stated desire to leave Houston was a major story line of the offseason until massage therapists started coming forward with allegations. Yet he doesn’t participate in practices or games. He’s not injured. He’s not suspended. It’s strange, and no one with the Texans or the NFL has publicly explained this nebulous situation in which the superstar quarterback is being paid to stay away.
On Sunday, after starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor was injured in the Texans’ loss in Cleveland, Houston Coach David Culley must have studied Misdirection 101 from Goodell when he gave this answer about Watson’s status as the potential backup: “We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
Since, Culley has quashed any speculation caused by that comment and ruled out Watson for Thursday. But Culley wouldn’t have had to swing and miss on the first question about Watson if the league had stepped in weeks ago, at the start of the season, and officially placed him on paid leave.
Under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, it is Goodell’s discretion to temporarily place a player on the commissioner’s exempt list even if he is not formally charged with one of several crimes but merely if such a crime is “alleged” and requires further investigation. The league could have sent a message by telling Watson: Dude, you need to sit down until we get some clarity on these claims (two of the women have alleged that Watson forced them to perform oral sex).
The league could have let it be known that even absent a resolution in a criminal proceeding, there’s still a high standard for lifestyle decisions placed on the men who have the privilege of wearing the shield.
Instead, the NFL has waited. It thinks not publicly getting involved is the smart move. That way, no one can criticize Goodell for being too soft with the punishment or being too heavy-handed. You can almost picture the league’s decision-makers imitating that GIF of the guy tapping his finger to his temple after coming up with this genius idea. By trying to be neutral, however, the NFL has caused confusion.
Why aren’t the Texans playing their best player, the guy who signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension just last year? Are they trying to protect his trade value? And why can’t they find a single team that can use a 26-year-old three-time Pro Bowl selection? Well, we already know the answer to that one.
These allegations are giving NFL teams pause, and even the NFL has described them as “deeply disturbing.” But clearly not so disturbing as to persuade Goodell to formally put Watson on paid leave. The fact that Watson is still available to be pursued by another team is a problem and emblematic of a league that still doesn’t know how to handle situations involving its representatives and alleged misconduct against women.
In 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely only after video emerged of him knocking out his then-fiancee inside an elevator. That incident — Rice had been suspended for just two games before the video came out — supposedly changed the way the NFL treats domestic violence, but since then the league has dealt with players and owners regarding allegations of harassment and abuse inconsistently.
Though the NFL may want to plug its ears or cover its eyes until it’s forced into action, the ugliness of the Watson situation isn’t magically going away. What if a team desperate enough trades for Watson and an uproar begins in that market, making it difficult for that franchise to play him? Then does Watson go on the exempt list?
If the NFL is waiting to act until a legal resolution arrives, does that mean it no longer stands by its policy, which says: “It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime in a court of law. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.”
For now, the league just looks feeble, dragging along until someone or something else forces it to make a decision.