The Deshaun Watson And Trevor Bauer Cases Remind Us That Sports Leagues Still Love Their Kangaroo Courts
4:42 PM EDT on August 17, 2021
For the first time since an April press conference, two of the women suing Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson for sexual misconduct spoke about what has happened to them since coming forward. Watson is currently being sued in Texas civil court by 22 women who all say that he contacted them for a professional massage but, during the appointment, tried to and in some cases did touch them with his penis. (Watson is fighting the lawsuits.) Just two of the women have spoken publicly so far, Ashley Solis and Lauren Baxley, which is no surprise given the consequences they describe. In their interview with Sports Illustrated's Jenny Vrentas, both women talked about the threats they have received, the way they've worried about their physical safety, and how the case has hurt their businesses and income. They also went into detail about their interactions with the NFL's investigators, about whom they had very little, if anything, good to say.
Three days after the SI story was published, a woman began her testimony in a Los Angeles courtroom against Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer. She is testifying in hopes of keeping and extending the restraining order she has against the MLB star, whom she said physically assaulted her twice. Unlike Watson, who until recently kept showing up to Texans practice, Bauer isn't playing baseball right now because he's been placed on administrative leave. (Bauer has claimed what happened was consensual rough sex.)
Watson's presence at Texans camp meant reporters were asking what the NFL is doing about his case, and the answers, as provided by Solis and Baxley, are pretty poor. Solis told Vrentas that an NFL investigator asked her what she was wearing at the time she met with Watson and tried to justify the question—one with a long history of use to assert that women set themselves up to be assaulted—by saying it was something she had to ask. As Solis told SI: "I'm not sure what I’m supposed to be wearing that would suggest that I don’t want you to put your penis on my hand. Do I need to wear a turtleneck?”
Baxley spoke to Vrentas separately, but had the same concerns after her own NFL interview. She too said she was asked during her interview with NFL investigators Lisa Friel and Jennifer Gaffney what she was wearing during her appointment with Watson. She said the interviewers questioned her behavior and her choices, including asking why she didn't immediately stop the rest of the session with Watson when he crossed professional boundaries. Baxley went so far as to say her interview with Houston police went better than the one with the NFL's people, who seemed as though they were, as Baxley put it, "trying to trip me up. They didn’t, but they were really looking for the weaknesses that they thought they could exploit."
The entire ordeal left Solis feeling "worried my words were going to be used against me."
An anonymous NFL source did its best to excuse the conduct by suggesting to SI that league investigators cannot practice trauma-informed interviewing techniques because they don't have subpoena powers, like an officer of the court or law enforcement, and they expect to only get one chance to interview a person. This is false. Plenty of professionals—including journalists—lack subpoena powers. Like an NFL investigator, I often talk to people knowing it might be my only opportunity at an interview with them. Yet this does not stop me or my fellow reporters from using trauma-informed interviewing techniques, nor is it allowed as an excuse when we treat people poorly. Even outside of interviewing people who are traumatized, interrupting people during an interview is just plain rude. Anyone who has done any level of interviewing, be it as a journalist or a member of any other field, knows the power of holding silence.
When SI published the story, these details were met with shock and outrage. But they also aren't an isolated incident in the history of NFL investigations, or even professional sports league investigations. Instead, they belong now to the lengthy history of endeavors by the NFL, as well as other sports leagues, that seem to serve one purpose: Figuring out the right level of suspension that will get them the best public relations relative to the player's level of skill and fame.
There are plenty of examples of this. There was the NFL's investigation of Greg Hardy, in which a lawyer for Hardy was allowed to use the sex of lives of women to attack their credibility without significant pushback. When the Athletic's Lindsay Jones looked back at at five years of NFL player suspensions for intimate-partner violence and sexual assault, she found, to the shock of nobody who has followed this issue closely, the league was "inconsistent" in how it applied policies. Jones concluded that the NFL gave shorter suspensions to star players who cooperated with the league's investigations.
"I just think that that’s the one thing that’s always going to be true here—you can make all of these policies and talk about how much you care about women and how much you abhor violence against women and all of these education programs and training programs and hiring people … bottom line is that if you are a good player and if a coach on a team believes that you can help them win, they will forgive just about anything," Jones said on the Burn It All Down podcast.
You can find a similar dynamic in baseball, which suspended the very successful closer Aroldis Chapman for 30 games, then-Atlanta outfielder Héctor Olivera for 82 games, and free-agent reliever Sam Dyson, a player you likely haven't heard of, for an entire season. Sheryl Ring's analysis of baseball's suspensions found, like with the NFL, that the league didn't seem to be doing anything to deter intimate-partner violence. It also seemed to disproportionally lead to the suspensions of players of color. (There have been three suspensions for intimate-partner violence in the NBA since 2014, according to one list, which should not be taken as a sign that the league has greater moral standing; it's just as easily explained by the sport having the smallest rosters in professional North American sports.)
As testimony will continue in the Bauer case, it's worth remembering why he got placed on administrative leave. It was not, directly, due to the violence he was accused of. It was because the Dodgers were embarrassing themselves by refusing to bench Bauer, even though teams bench players all the time for all sorts of reasons. The maneuvering worked. The yelling stopped.
Ultimately, that's what these leagues, with their shadow judiciaries, kangaroo courts, infuriating interviews, inconsistent penalties, and almost-impossible-to-decipher conduct policies are really about. They are not about making players better people. They are not about stopping violence. They are not about making anyone who has been harmed feel safer. You and I already know where the Bauer and Watson investigations by these various leagues will end: Their respective commissioners will each suspend them the amount of games that they believe will make enough people happy and earn some positive headlines. And, if Watson and Bauer still have enough talent in the tank (and these two players surely will), a team will likely give them jobs once their suspensions are over. That's about it. What will have mattered most, what all this sound and fury was moving toward, was making sure the brand was protected. That's all this has ever been about.