He won, which means the integrity of the NFL — what’s left of it — lost.
He won, which means Aug. 1, 2022, must go down as a dreadful moment in the history of pro football.
He won, which means the league failed women. Again.
The reason you have a personal conduct policy is to be able to drop the hammer in a situation such as this. But now that the NFL and its players union have shifted from the old model of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s omnipotent kangaroo court to third-party judgment, it’s not as easy to make arbitrary rules in anticipation of public opinion. And that’s how Watson got away with a light punishment. Robinson’s 16-page ruling makes clear she relied on Goodell’s inconsistent record as a disciplinarian and could find no precedent or pattern to justify the league’s argument that Watson should be suspended for at least a year.
In essence, Robinson’s decision can be taken as an indictment of the NFL’s random, optics-influenced practices over the years, dating from the shameful and wishy-washy manner in which Goodell handled Ray Rice’s domestic violence case eight years ago. It’s never a good thing when a judge goes searching for fairness in muddled methodology.
Her odd ruling is the result of too much fixation on the league’s entangled logic. NFL weeds are exasperating yet fascinating, and the attempt to systemize the insanity led Robinson to be soft on Watson despite conceding that the NFL proved the three most important aspects of its case.
She said the league argued successfully that Watson had violated its broad personal conduct policy by engaging in acts of sexual assault, undermining the integrity of the NFL and endangering the safety and well-being of others. However, she resorted to using the cumbersome and objectionable term “nonviolent sexual assault” to put Watson’s offenses in this awkward bubble of mild misconduct, which enabled her to reason that his sins weren’t on par with past domestic violence incidents in which the league levied suspensions of eight and 10 games.
That rationale was bizarre, and it sent the worst possible message to Watson’s alleged victims, who have shared stories of the quarterback’s nonconsensual ejaculation during massage sessions and other inappropriate, aggressive behavior that left them traumatized. To minimize the way in which they were violated — and in her ruling, Robinson clearly states she deemed the NFL had met the burden of proof for sexual assault — is an infuriating misrepresentation of this kind of sexual violence.
Robinson, who specialized in antitrust law and trademark infringement during her career, seemed to be a peculiar choice for this case, but the league and the NFL Players Association agreed on her appointment. Now, the language of “nonviolent sexual assault” will stand as a callous and inglorious reminder of the day Watson avoided significant punishment.
Watson, a marquee player at the most celebrated position in team sports, has settled 23 of 24 civil cases against him, all of which accused him of sexual assault or harassment. Although a criminal investigation against him didn’t lead to charges, there is an implication of culpability with those settlements. The NFL did its own investigation, and it presented evidence and testimony from just four of the victims to Robinson. She referenced the other cases, but they did not factor into her ruling. Still, even the small sample size should have been enough to warrant a longer suspension.
Robinson leaned on precedent without fully considering the NFL’s argument that the Watson case is unprecedented because of the volume of allegations. She lumped him in with players who were punished for single incidents that violated the personal conduct policy. Robinson should have considered a multiplier because the NFL proved its case using four women.
For now, Watson can circle an Oct. 23 road game against the Baltimore Ravens as his return date. He didn’t play a snap last season, but that wasn’t punishment. He had demanded a trade from Houston, and the Texans felt it best to protect his trade value by having him sit out amid the chaos. He still made the $10.5 million Houston owed him last season, and when the trade to Cleveland went through in March, he signed a new contract with a historic full guarantee of $230 million even though his civil cases were unresolved at the time. For those who think Watson suffered, stop with the celebrity brown-nosing, please. When it’s all over, he will come out ahead.
During the six-game suspension, Watson will lose about $350,000. The Browns structured his contract in anticipation of punishment, so he would lose less money than if the deal had been front-loaded. It was all an incentive to get him to agree to be traded to Cleveland. Watson is on a better team. He’s making record money. And now he’s poised to escape what threatened to be career-ruining trouble before Halloween.
He won, unless the NFL chooses to engage in a prolonged legal battle.
The league or NFLPA can still appeal the decision. Before the punishment was announced, the NFLPA indicated it was fine with what was coming. Goodell has the final say. League lawyers can toss the case and go directly to the commissioner or someone he designates. Given Goodell’s history of agitation with public outcry, he might just drop the hammer himself, which would undermine the new punishment process and probably trigger lawsuit hell.
No matter the outcome, the stain can’t be erased. The NFL is so backward that it just proved to a judge that it employs a quarterback with an “egregious” record of sexual assault, yet after considering the league’s confusing disciplinary practices, she decided it most fair to make him sit for six weeks and simply remind him that, oh yeah, your days of perusing Instagram for women to rub on your body are over, buddy.
It’s impossible to trust Watson in a room with a massage therapist, but he’ll be a front-facing NFL star again in no time.
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