The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deshaun Watson is the star the NFL deserves: A cynical, empty narcissist

Deshaun Watson speaks to the media after details of the settlement of his case were released. (Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

The NFL has a terminal contempt for little people. It specializes in the abuse of the powerless with impunity, and Deshaun Watson’s light suspension and mock penitence, which he couldn’t sustain for even a full sentence, was just another take-us-for-fools offense. Never has the syndrome been more apparent than in Watson’s head-clutching double talk following the announcement he will sit out 11 games and pay a $5 million fine. His non-apology was so sourly cynical and canned, such a combination of bad faith and bad breath, that it made you long for a Listerine rinse.

He’s sorry. No, he isn’t. He has learned. No, he hasn’t. He takes responsibility. No, he doesn’t. Watson’s utterly insincere written apology after allegedly exposing himself and perving on female massage therapists included everything but a dab at the eyes as he promised to work to become “the best version of myself on and off the field.” Blech. Then he held a news conference and contradicted all of it with a casualness that made it clear it was just hygiene theater.

“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone,” Watson said. “…I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence.”

Asked if he was so innocent then why did he accept an ­11-game suspension, he replied, “That was the legal side,” blithely waving it away with his hand. He agreed to it purely to “move on” with his life and his career after setting “pride aside.”

What was he apologizing for then? Watson responded with all the sincerity of an Animatron: “There was a lot of people that was triggered.” He was saying sorry to “all women” for anything they might have suffered at the hands of someone, only not from him, in any way, because he is so innocent and has so little to really be sorry for.

Why thank you, Deshaun, for that proffer of a verbal box of chocolates to all the ladies out there, except for the nearly two dozen you have settled civil claims with for exposing yourself and brushing them with your junk while they were trying to work.

Deshaun Watson suspended 11 games, fined $5 million under settlement

A modest suggestion: Perhaps the NFL has more disciplinary work to do here with the young man before it declares his case closed. “All women” don’t need an apology from Watson, but they do need to see that those on whom he imposed his “predatory” and “egregious” conduct, in the words of disciplinary officer and former U.S. district judge Sue L. Robinson, receive some decent contrition along with reparation. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to watch NFL football with anything less than a burning coal in the throat.

Among the ways Watson harmed his victims was in making them “fearful” of his ability to “use his status as an NFL player to damage their careers,” Robinson found. He exploited a major power imbalance — it was a dual offense along with the unwanted touching — and his accusers were right to think they probably could suffer more proportional consequences of his nasty behaviors than he ever would.

“The message today to all victims is clear, if you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away,” victim attorney Tony Buzbee said in a statement.

The NFL has a major problem with misuse of power — all varieties of it. Watson’s case was just one in a larger power-abuse complex, from Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder harboring serial sexual harassment in his franchise with zero real world penalties to Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’s slap on the wrist for boldly trying to cheat the audience via tampering and his flirtation with tanking. There lurks in all of these episodes an underlying sneer and chortle of secret understanding: These men are too rich to care, and there is no NFL punishment they can’t easily absorb and no reputational damage the league won’t help them cure with stage-managed proceedings to quiet the credulous and inferior rest of us.

Once you place your finger squarely on this, you can’t hear anything said by the league or by Cleveland Browns officials as anything other than a concerto of condescension and connivance. Watson wasn’t alone in his two-faced double talk. The 26-year-old was just emulating his elders. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam seemed to think that cloaking themselves as human rights activists would somehow drug you into forgetting they wagered three first-round draft picks and the biggest guaranteed contract in NFL history on Watson, even as the line of women accusing him of sexual creepism wrapped around the block.

“We can talk about Deshaun, or we can talk about the major issues the country faces and make a difference,” Dee Haslam said. “How can we move forward as a country?” she added, a remark that can’t even be retyped on this page without keening, mascara-smearing laughter.

There was a lot of talk about “counseling” — mandated for Watson as part of the suspension settlement. There was a lot of insistence that Watson is “remorseful” and reminders that he is young. “Is he never supposed to play again?” Jimmy Haslam asked. “Is he never supposed to be a part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? That is what we are going to do.” Ahh, I see. The Browns traded for Watson because they’re Father Flanagans who want to rescue him.

Now look here. Virtually no one suggested that Watson should never get to play again or be shunned forever — and it’s sinuous in the extreme to frame matters that way, as if the world demands too harsh a penalty from him.

Most assuredly Watson deserves a second chance, and nothing anyone does at the age of 26 should be the sum story of their life. But any thinking person must surely doubt whether a partial suspension that allows him to play the final third of the season, a fail-safe $230 million contract left almost untouched by penalty and a false apology and cleansing second-chance narrative calculated to wrap the story up with a bow will do the trick for the young man. Yet this was the convenient attitude also copped by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement: “Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself.”

No, no he hasn’t. He hasn’t squarely apologized to — or even recognized — the women he abused. Clearly, they’re too far beneath him.

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