In this world, certain things are inherent truths: The sun will rise in the east and set in the west. Your toast will land butter-side down. And any large and powerful organization will dump its difficult news on a Friday. So, of course, it was on a Friday when the Cleveland Browns announced that they were trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson. In this case, though, the word trade, while correct, feels as if it downplaying how well the move worked out for Watson—who is still being sued by 22 women who say he sexually harassed them during massage appointments, including three lawsuits in which women say the QB forced them to perform oral sex. Three other women also have said publicly that the QB sexually harassed them during massage appointments, but one dropped her lawsuit instead of refilling it with her name, and the other two women have not filed suits.
Here is how last week went for Watson. After not playing football for a year, the Cleveland Browns gave Watson a $230 million, fully guaranteed contract, making it one of the richest deals in NFL history. The contract intentionally gave Watson a meager (by NFL QB standards) base salary in the first year of just more than $1 million, a move that appears to be done to significantly reduce the amount of money he would lose if suspended from playing by the NFL because of what those 25 women say. That assumes he’s suspended at all. Collectively, this means that, at least money wise, Watson came out a far richer man than he was before the the women came forward.
This led to a lot of anger, from NFL fans and, specifically, Browns fans. How could it not? I don’t want to pretend that every NFL fan cares about violence towards women—plenty of people were celebrating this move for the Browns. But there are fans who care because how could there not be when hundreds of millions of people follow the league. (Yes, those fans include women but, as the abuse by Richard Strauss at Ohio State and Robert Anderson at Michigan show, sexual violence happens to men, too.) After the Watson deal was announced, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center said it got more than a thousand donations.
In response to this anger, the Browns issued several statements on Sunday, most notably from team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam. Their statement is worth going over in detail because a lot can be gleaned about the mores of pro sports team ownership by what is said and, also, what is not. The statement opened with this:
We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson.
If the Browns spent “significant” time looking into what happened, I’d expect this statement to go into detail about those steps. As the saying goes, show, don’t tell. But no surprise, this statement gives none of those details. You and I must take the Haslams—who made their fortune owning a truck-stop company recently involved in a massive fraud case —at their word. (The lead attorney for the women suing, Tony Buzbee, has said that no NFL team reached out to him.)
Next, the Haslams said this:
We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision.
Translation: Whatever sexual violence you have suffered in your own life is “personal.” Please stop tweeting about it. Thank you.
It went on:
Our team’s comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved. We also understand there are still some legal proceedings that are ongoing and we will respect due process.
Translation: We once again will not tell you what we did, because we own the team and you do not.
The statement continued:
It was pivotal that we, along with Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski, meet with Deshaun to have a straightforward dialogue, discuss our priorities, and hear directly from him on how he wants to approach his career on and off the field. He was humble, sincere, and candid. In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. Those in-depth conversations, the extensive evaluation process, his dedication to being a great teammate and devotion to helping others within the NFL, within the community, and through his charitable initiatives provided the foundation for us to pursue Deshaun.
Or, rather, the Haslams mean this: We will say nothing about our “investigation” but we will go into great detail about what Watson said because that is the only part that makes us look good.
We are confident in Deshaun and excited about moving forward with him as our quarterback and supporting his genuine and determined efforts.”
Translation Let’s do some winning! Please ignore what all 25 women have said! Let’s freaking goooooo!!!!!!!!!!!
The statements from the rest of the Browns organization all struck similar tones. General manager Andrew Berry also insisted that their investigation was “extensive,” without actually saying what was done, and talked about “positive contributions to our team,” a.k.a. winning. Head coach Kevin Stefanski’s statement also pointed out the “extensive” work done to make them comfortable signing Watson, and also did not say what that work was. Neither of these statements matter, though. If the Haslams were bothered by what the women have said about Watson, they would have vetoed any move to sign him by their employees. Clearly, they were not.
Ever since the move was announced, much of the chatter has been about what the league will do and what sort of bind the NFL is in. This ignores that league “investigations” still largely remain kangaroo courts that do little beyond try to guess the amount of suspension that will make angry fans shut up. They are public relations, wrapped up in the language of justice, which always becomes apparent when a really, really good player is involved—and Watson is a really, really good player. He also has had more than two dozen women say he sexually harassed them, or worse, during massage appointments.
What’s most difficult about Watson’s new contract is how it serves as a reminder to anyone who cares about sexual violence and harassment that those wrongs, like so many wrongs, only count for so much in our society. You can be good enough at a lot of things, including football, and those in power will find a way to ignore what you have done because it’s convenient for them and their bottom line. This is not a new story for sports or our society. It is the same old story, the same old lesson, and what’s hardest is not knowing how many more times you and I must hear it and experience it and do our best to fight for change before those in power start finally to shift.