As it turned out, the retired federal judge hired by the NFL and its players union to mete out discipline didn’t only do quarterback Deshaun Watson a favor in suspending him for about a third of a season for appearing to be a serial sexual assaulter of women. Sue L. Robinson did the league — more specifically, its commissioner, Roger Goodell — an even bigger favor. She delivered Goodell an opportunity to save face.
Indeed, the six-game suspension she levied on Watson for seemingly preying on women he had hired for massages wound up as nothing more than a trial balloon. As it ascended, it was pelted with criticism from near and far. All of which gave Goodell an opportunity he must have been happy to seize: to feign such great disappointment with the judge’s verdict — as stunningly insulting and dismissive of the women’s claims — that he was left with no option but to swoop in and save the women’s honor by appealing the decision as utterly inadequate, which the league did Wednesday.
And sometime soon, former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey, chosen by Goodell on Thursday to hear the league’s appeal, will impose a more severe penalty derived from Goodell’s moral measurement. It might well be banishment from the entire upcoming season, which would be more in line with what the critics and public cried out for in the wake of Robinson’s tortured ruling. That also would echo reporting, including from The Washington Post’s Mark Maske, that Goodell all along sought at least a season-long suspension for the Cleveland quarterback, positioning himself and the league as tough on the reported wicked behavior.
The skeptic in me suspected this was part of a public relations setup all along. After all, the new disciplinary system the league and union negotiated a couple years ago allowed for the league ultimately to handle discipline as it had in the past, with the commissioner as the final authority. The amendment agreed upon was that someone other than the commissioner would first be judge and jury, which also nodded toward public sentiment after decades of the commissioner’s office doing the policing and sentencing — or not.
That new person was called a disciplinary officer. Robinson became the first. Her position was deemed neutral, though she is contracted and paid for by the league and players union to determine any penalties or whether a penalty is necessary at all.
However, as the 2020 collective bargaining agreement states, upon appeal, “the Commissioner or his designee will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement.”
So at day’s end, it is still Goodell (or his designee) making the ultimate decision. It is just that public sentiment has first been officially gauged in the process — and someone other than the commissioner has been sacrificed before the masses. Then the commissioner gets to clean up the mess to the satisfaction of critics. It won’t matter anymore that Robinson said she reached her decision only because she was hamstrung by Goodell’s weak punishment in previous cases similar to Watson’s. That will be just about forgotten.
It doesn’t end here, of course. Watson and the players union could sue the league if whatever new penalty Goodell’s office issues doesn’t agree with them. Before Robinson’s ruling, the players union announced that it intended to accept the judge’s ruling and hoped the league would do the same.
That was a trial balloon of its own that was deflated by Goodell’s office Wednesday. So the wrestling over what to do with Watson probably won’t end with the league’s appeal to, of all parties, itself.
Watson, who didn’t play last season — in league purgatory while his voluminous case file was being investigated by legal authorities as well as his employer — probably will sue the league if it orders him sidelined for a second consecutive season or longer. Last season, he was remunerated despite not playing. This time, he wouldn’t be. Instead, he could be forced to apply for reinstatement in the 2023 season.
He and his new team in Cleveland already considered such a possibility. The gargantuan multiyear contract it signed him to will pay him only a paltry portion in 2022. In the event of a suspension of less than a year, that guaranteed the salary lost for games he misses because of suspension would be negligible.
Watson would expect his union dues to kick in and have its legal wing come to his defense. But if I were a dues-paying member of his union, I wouldn’t want, I wouldn’t want union resources spent fighting for one member suspended for such lewd behavior, with Watson committing what the judge described as “ … sexual assault by allegedly ‘touching [his] penis to the women without their consent.’ ” That’s indefensible.
The only thing that might be assailable is the process that winds up earning Watson a harsher, more deserving penalty. The union could seek a federal judge to vacate Goodell’s appeal decision. But Ezekiel Elliott, Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson ran the same play in attempts to get their league-issued suspensions overturned. They failed.
Goodell’s office could decide to lengthen Robinson’s suspension to less than a season, but that wouldn’t meet demand. And demand is what this matter is all about.
After all, who knows what a proper punishment should be for Watson? He was twice no-billed by grand juries, which some in the public wrongly believe means he was exonerated. No bills don’t exonerate. He settled with 23 of the 24 women who said he sexually assaulted them, including a few who identified themselves in interviews before television cameras. (A 25th lawsuit was withdrawn.) Some in the public wrongly believe that is evidence of his guilt. Settlements are not. They merely muffle complaints and reduce the financial impact on the subject of the finger pointing.
But both actions are as much a part of the public relations operation for Watson as Goodell’s decision to reclaim the disciplining of a disgraceful player is for the commissioner and the league.