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The Browns’ Deshaun Watson mess is a moral failure and a football mistake

Deshaun Watson kneels on the field during the Browns' practice Wednesday. (AP Photo/David Richard)
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No rational plan leads an organization to trade six draft picks and guarantee $230 million to a player accused of serial predatory sexual behavior. The Cleveland Browns were fools in March when they won a callous bidding war for Deshaun Watson. Less than three months later, the quarterback’s unresolved legal situation has gotten worse, his reputation has continued to erode, and his path back to football has grown more complicated.

Watson faces 24 accusers now, two more than the Browns knew about when they made the deal. During a recent episode of HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” two of the women suing him told their chilling stories. This week, the New York Times published an investigation with new, disturbing information about how often Watson targeted female massage therapists over a 17-month period and the manner in which the Houston Texans, his former team, may have enabled his behavior. And Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lawyer, caused a stir during a radio interview last week when he made dismissive comments about sexual activity during massage sessions.

The Browns were prepared for initial turbulence, but they assumed they were getting Watson at the end of his troubles. Now his disgrace is their disaster.

In March, teams began competing in a distasteful sweepstakes after the first of two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges. Despite the remaining civil cases, quarterback-desperate teams were ready to gamble under the same, cold assumption: no jail time, no hesitation. Game on. But finality in the Watson scandal may not be that close.

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NFL teams don’t make moral decisions. No multibillion-dollar sports franchise does. Every move comes down to value and risk assessment, and in Watson’s case, teams lined up to make a trade because they thought they could outlast the backlash and reap substantial rewards over time by having one of the game’s elite players.

So the Browns made a morally indefensible decision because they trusted it would be a competitively shrewd move for which their most disappointed fans would forgive them. And the helmet-headed among us conceded it made sound football sense given Watson’s youth, his tremendous on-field track record and the clear upgrade over Baker Mayfield.

But what if this isn’t an example of talent trumping values? What if, because of Watson’s undetermined availability, this turns out to be an atrocious football mistake as well?

Every troubling revelation increases the possibility that this saga will last much longer than Watson and the Browns anticipated. The task to settle or try two dozen (and counting) cases in court is onerous, but there’s also the arbitrary process of NFL justice. And Watson can’t be certain that he is beyond all criminal charges. Stack all the unknowns, and the Browns have to be concerned that Watson will make his Cleveland debut later than they envisioned.

The more time he misses, the dumber a football decision it becomes. The Browns structured his contract knowing that Watson could be suspended for a significant portion of the 2022 season. His base salary is just $1.035 million this season, which means he would lose a little less than $61,000 per game if the NFL punished him. But in each of the final four seasons of that deal, his base balloons to $46 million, which is about $2.7 million per game.

For the tidiest bookkeeping, Cleveland gave Watson a signing bonus of nearly $45 million, for which the salary cap hit is spread evenly over all five years of the deal. It means Watson carries a cap burden of about $10 million this season (base salary plus prorated bonus), but the number grows to $54.993 million over the last four seasons. For their accounting to make sense, the Browns need Watson to be out of trouble by the start of the 2023 season. That’s 15 months away. It sounds like a long time, but the first lawsuit against Watson was filed 15 months ago, and fresh accusations continue to emerge.

The lewd details and constant negative publicity make it all the more unlikely that an image-obsessed NFL allows Watson to play before there is resolution.

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For the entire 2021 season, the Texans chose not to play Watson, who had requested a trade before his legal troubles started. If it’s up to the Browns, they won’t make that decision, and in late March, Roger Goodell said he wouldn’t place Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list before the conclusion of his civil cases. But recent developments could make him reconsider.

Last month, the league also claimed it was nearing the end of its own investigation into Watson. The question now is whether the latest lawsuits and Times investigation covered ground the NFL has yet to explore. If so, that might put the commissioner’s list in play or prompt the league to do an initial suspension based on its findings to this point while reserving the right to do more later. Neither option presents Cleveland with the kind of resolution it desperately needs.

NFL justice isn’t really about justice. It is a ploy to pacify the court of public opinion. When Goodell started emphasizing discipline 16 years ago, his motivation was to assuage concern about the players being too unruly to cheer for. The NFL doesn’t want to police player conduct as much as it wants to police the optics of player conduct, and that mentality has led to all kinds of inconsistency, hypocrisy and embarrassment.

The league already messed up by sitting back and allowing teams to engage in an absurd auction for Watson’s services while the accusations were still trickling in. It resulted in Cleveland giving the quarterback that record $230 million guaranteed to waive his no-trade clause, a move that has been portrayed as merely the latest egregious example of the league’s disinterest in respecting and protecting women. Trying to redeem itself, the NFL will be careful about how it proceeds with punishment.

At some point, the Browns expect the elite quarterback they are paying $230 million to play. For now, the return on their investment includes only infamy, criticism and anxiety. They made a plan to wait out the shame. It’s already inadequate. With Watson, the shame keeps multiplying.

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