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The NFL takes us for fools -- and we keep coming back for more
The NFL and its franchises have proven they will absorb anything in the pursuit of titles and profit.
Editor’s note: This story contains accounts of sexual assault
The acronym NFL may technically stand for National Football League, but the football zeitgeist proclaims its true meaning: Not For Long. They’re mostly right. The short-term nature of the NFL is evident at every turn. A player leading the league in rushing yards suffers a season-ending ACL injury. A rookie head coach gets the boot after a season because he couldn’t turn around the dumpster of a franchise he inherited. Players are great one year, and too old and not worth their contract the next. Except for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and a handful of others, time on the NFL stage is just a blip of their life.
The other side of Not For Long is much more disturbing and difficult to reckon with. It’s the side where a star player is accused of a criminal act, most often domestic violence or sexual assault. The NFL pretends to take it seriously, usually launching some type of investigation. Sometimes they issue a suspension, sometimes they follow up with some sort of new advisory committee vowing to educate its players and employees, sometimes they place them on the ominous-sounding ‘Commissioner’s Exempt List’. But mostly they wait for the fervor and disgust over the accused player getting chance after chance to fade. It always does and the league can safely move on to its next fire with nothing important like money lost. Eh, who cares about a sliver of your soul?
The NFL warlords know most of the NFL fanbase has a short-term memory. They know no matter our level of disappointment, we’re not going anywhere. Football is too intoxicating, an addiction.
It’s not just the beautiful chess matches played on the field in the fall, it’s the non-stop, year-long cavalcade of information. The NFL news cycle is like walking onto a popular Las Vegas casino floor on a Friday night. There are lights and action and dings at every turn. The NFL knows, despite our threats to boycott on social media, that we’ll soon move on to whatever is next, be it Bruce Arians’ surprise transition from coaching to the front office or the upcoming NFL Draft, and mostly stop thinking about what inflamed us in the first place.
Perhaps the case of Deshaun Watson re-entering the NFL will follow a different trajectory. I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath though.
The Watson sweepstake that had silently been in motion for a year was won by the Cleveland Browns, who signed the 26-year-old exactly one week after a grand jury decided not to press criminal charges filed by nine of the 22 massage therapists who accused Watson of sexual assault and misconduct. A second grand jury in a neighboring county dismissed another criminal charge alleged to have taken place there. Grand jury decisions are sealed so we will likely never know the rationale for the decision, but it’s rare for anyone accused of sexual assault to face criminal charges given the victim-said/accused-said nature of the crime. According to a 2018 Washington Post article citing the Department of Justice, only 1% of rapes result in a felony conviction, whereas 89% of victims face ongoing physical and emotional harm. Despite disturbing accounts in the initial complaint that include Watson ejaculating on a therapist and pressuring others to service his groin area, we can’t say for certain whether he is guilty or not. But 22 is a significant number, and people are mad.
Watson’s re-entry into the league has enraged the masses, including many Browns fans. Former Indians star Jim Thome and his wife announced on Twitter that they had canceled their Browns season tickets after 40 years over the Watson signing. “I believe women,” Andrea Thome tweeted. “Especially when there are 22 of them.”
People are mad that, while the criminal cases have been exhausted, there are upcoming civil cases, not to mention the NFL’s investigation. Watson shouldn’t necessarily be banned from the NFL forever, but why not at least let the judicial (and in-house) systems play out? People are also mad that the Browns — in strategically timed statements from owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, head coach Kevin Stefanski, and general manager Andrew Berry — all touted Watson’s character. The Haslams made a mockery of the process when they called their evaluation of Watson 'comprehensive', yet allegedly spoke to none of the 22 accusers. And people are mad that the Browns rewarded Watson with the richest contract in history — $230m, fully guaranteed. It's also a contract structured to allow Watson to avoid any significant financial hits if the NFL suspends him for part of next season.
The NFL can enact all the domestic violence/sexual assault policies it wants — a six-game baseline was instituted after Ray Rice’s infamous 2013 assault of his fiancée in an Atlantic City casino. It also formed a now-defunct committee to initiate league-wide solutions, one of which was a 'No More' PSA featuring a litany of current and former NFL players speaking out against sexual assault and domestic violence. All of that attention quickly faded as the new hot button issues shifted from violence (largely against women) to Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protesting and the NFL’s $765m concussion lawsuit and more minor issues like NFL officiating.
Investing resources on domestic violence and assault has all but disappeared. The result is Watson gets to prance around with a mega-contract designed to avoid any ramifications even if the NFL determines that he violated the personal conduct policy. If anyone in the league office paid attention during the sliver of time they were supposed to be learning the intricacies of domestic violence and sexual assault, they would know that a victim seeing their perpetrator publicly rewarded and praised is one of the most psychologically-damaging outcomes. In the case of Watson, there may or may not be 22 victims having to endure this trauma, but this is the exact scenario that is triggering for anyone who has been a victim.
The Watson case is particularly troublesome because the Browns are casting their fans as fools who will just get over it once he has his first win of the season.
Of course, if Watson was not a three-time Pro Bowler who possesses all the physical tools of a winning franchise quarterback, the narrative may be different. If some random third-string center faced the same charges as Watson, he’d be released in a heartbeat. No team would find his services worth the hassle. But, if a player can help you win football games, they can ignore the toxicity. For the Browns, the initial backlash over signing Watson is worth it because the blueprint for the zeitgeist moving on has been well established.
It's hardly a secret that talent trumps trouble in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys signed former defensive end Greg Hardy who was convicted on two counts of sexual assault and making threats (a rarity in the legal system) because he could sack quarterbacks. The Tampa Bay Bucs laid out a red carpet for Antonio Brown after he was accused of rape, not to mention an endless display of erratic behavior. But, boy, can he catch a deep pass from Tom Brady. It wasn’t until Brown walked out in the middle of an actual football game that Bruce Arians cried 'enough'. Adrian Peterson was welcomed back into the NFL after beating his then four-year-old son with a switch.
No matter the fury in each case, the NFL’s bottom line never took a hit. Fans bought their jerseys and renewed their season tickets. And the league got richer and richer. In 2021, the NFL made a whopping $18 billion in revenue, more than double the $8 billion it was taking when Roger Goodell was installed as the league’s commissioner – Goodell’s stated goal is to see league revenue hit $25 billion by 2027.
And the same gravitational forces that are keeping disgruntled fans around, adding to the revenue, not coincidentally exists in a universe where players are dehumanized. According to ESPN reports, 40 million Americans alone play fantasy football, a hobby that turns actual players into nothing more than fantasy slot machines. Then there’s the more hardcore form of gambling. If someone places a chunk of their paycheck on the Browns over the Steelers, they’ll be rooting like mad for Watson, not fixated on the fact that the broadcast neglected to mention why he was sidelined last season.
For those, like me, who can’t compartmentalize what happens on the field from off, there’s a constant moral dilemma watching this sport. The draw is the physical specimens who take the field and perform complex schemes and tackles and blocking and jaw-dropping catches. Not to mention the pageantry, which no one does better than the NFL.
In an ideal world, we could shine a bigger light on the countless number of NFL players who use their platform for good. But, for every story about the houses current Walter Payton Man of the Year Andrew Whitworth has funded in his home towns of Louisiana and Los Angeles, we have a trillion about Watson and which team he will choose and how he will fare replacing Baker Mayfield — and then where Mayfield will end up in the quarterback merry-go-round.
The Browns should be focused on outreach for the portion of its fanbase struggling with the Watson signing. But they know they don’t have to. Because, for every two fans like the Thomes who may exit for good, there are twenty more eager to take their place, no matter what the people who take the field have done.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the Survivors Trust (UK)at 08088 010818 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (US) at 800.656.HOPE. Alternatively, you can use the websites thesurvivortrust.org or rainn.org