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No one comes out on top in Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson's 11-game suspension settlement: Dave 'Dino' DeNatale column

From the NFL and its players union, to the Browns' ownership and Watson himself, no one can claim victory in Thursday's settlement.

CLEVELAND — Our long football nightmare is over in Cleveland. At least it feels that way tonight. 

We finally have a resolution in the Deshaun Watson investigation by the National Football League. The Browns quarterback and the NFLPA agreed to an 11-game suspension, a $5 million fine, and treatment for violating the league's personal conduct policy. 

The waiting is finally over. 

But before we start imagining life with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for most of 2022, or ponder the merits of trading for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo, I think it's useful to reflect on what we saw and heard on Thursday. Because after further review, no one came out a winner in Watson v. NFL.

The Haslams

I've said my peace in the past about the decision by the Browns to trade for Deshaun Watson, investing three first-round draft picks and the most guaranteed money in league history. I think it was a shoot-from-the-hip move from owners who have specialized in a decade's worth of such decisions during a turbulent tenure.

However, the performance of Jimmy and Dee Haslam at Thursday's press conference was less than stellar. Consider some of these nuggets:

On whether the team could have anticipated such a long suspension for Watson, Jimmy Haslam said the following:

"I don’t think we had any way of knowing. I don’t think anybody knew how many games Deshaun might miss. We did not know definitively until today. I think it is important to remember that Deshaun is 26-years-old and is a high-level NFL quarterback, and we are planning on him being our quarterback for a long time."

There also seems to be some issue as to whether Watson thinks he did anything wrong. 

Jimmy Haslam: "He said he is remorseful.” 

Dee Haslam: "I think again, we respect his opinion. I do think in counseling Deshaun will grow to learn a lot more about himself."

Deshaun Watson: "I continue to stand on my innocence. Just because settlements and things like that happen, it doesn't mean a person is guilty for anything."

There is still just a disconnect between the team's owners and the reality of many situations. Jimmy and Dee Haslam are risking the long-term future of their franchise by this move. They didn't help themselves in the public relations department Thursday. 


When former U.S. District Court Judge Sue L. Robinson handed Watson a six-game suspension on August 1 for ruling that the quarterback's behavior in alleged incidents of misconduct "qualified as sexual assault," I wrote a column pleading with the NFL to not appeal the decision. 

Why? Not because I wanted Watson to be suspended for fewer games. It was because I didn't want to see this team and its fans bogged down in a morass of legal entanglements with Watson and the NFL battling back and forth in court. Every indication that we were given revealed that the NFL was set to give the Browns QB an indefinite suspension of at least one year. That would have prompted Watson and the NFL Players Association to sue the league in federal court.

Remember Tom Brady and "Deflategate"? It took 18 months for that case to finally resolve itself. No one in this town wanted or needed that.

The NFL had all of the leverage that it needed to hand out whatever punishment it wanted (more on that in a minute), yet they decided to pull back and settle. Commissioner Roger Goodell said as recently as last week that it was "the right thing to do" to appeal Robinson's ruling and referred to Watson's actions as "egregious" and "predatory behavior." 

The NFLPA maybe had one thing to hold over on the league. They could have put a spotlight on how the NFL handled (or didn't handle) off-the-field incidents involving three high-profile owners: Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. But there was seemingly no way the Watson suspension would have been reduced by a federal judge.

But at the 11th hour, Goodell and the league caved in.  

Yet, that's not even the worst of the NFL's culpability in all of this. Someone at the league's office needs to explain why there is no standard for non-violent sexual assault. Robinson's hands were tied.

"While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players," she wrote in her ruling.

So Robinson went with the six-game suspension that had been the precedent for previous such cases. The league has to do better going forward.


The union's executive director DeMaurice Smith was probably turning cartwheels in 2020 when they negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL. 

I just have one question: Who thought it was a good idea to have a backward process of deciding punishments? 

You go to the duly appointed independent arbitrator first, then give your "opponent" the power and leverage to have ultimate final say? That's lunacy. There was no way in the world that the NFL was not going to appeal the suspension. The players association would have been better off having the case reviewed by Goodell and/or Peter C. Harvey, then taken it to an arbitrator afterwards. 

The first case of punishment under the new CBA was not a win for the players, despite whatever ground they felt they achieved two years ago.

Deshaun Watson

Let me take you back in a time to 1987 for a few moments. Then-President Ronald Reagan was embroiled in a scandal called "Iran-Contra." His administration had engaged in illegal acts of selling weapons to Iran in a trade-for-hostages plan, then diverting a portion of the funds to a right-wing organization in Nicaragua.

Although he did not know about the diversion, history shows Reagan had been aware of the arms sale to Iran. Yet, in the fall of 1986, he said the following in a televised address to the American people:

"The charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, that the United States undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists. Those charges are utterly false. The United States has not made concessions to those who hold our people captive in Lebanon, and we will not."

Reagan's approval rating suffered "the largest single drop for any U.S. president in history" from 67% to 46% in November 1986, according to a The New York Times/CBS News poll. There was talk of impeachment on Capitol Hill.

With his back against the wall, Reagan went back on television in August 1987 and admitted his guilt in a way that became legendary:

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

Reagan's speech and subsequent response to the crisis renewed the faith of Americans in their president. He survived the scandal and finished with the best approval ratings since FDR. 

Why do I bring all of this up?

Because Watson had an opportunity to do something similar after the Robinson six-game suspension. He could have admitted to some form of responsibility for his role in "affecting everyone by this situation," as he put it on Thursday. He could have volunteered at that point to give back his 2021 salary, requesting that it be donated to the rape crises centers in Cleveland and Houston. Watson could have also volunteered to enter treatment at that point. 

Think about what he said in Jacksonville last Friday:

"Look, I want to say that I’m truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation. The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character and I am going to keep pushing forward."

It wasn't bad; it just wasn't timed properly. Let me put the Reagan-esque spin on it as if he would have given a statement on August 1:

"A few months ago, I told you that I did not disrespect any women. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but after reflecting on the stories of the women that have come forward, I realize that it is not. I want to say that I'm truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation. The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back."

Then, volunteer to pay the fine and donate it to sexual assault prevention and say you are entering treatment. Finish with something to the effect that you apologize for not showing more contrition, but truly am humbled by this affair.

Does the NFL appeal Robinson's suspension at that point? It's at least worth considering. 

One last point about counseling: I'm guessing Watson wishes he could have this quote back from his introductory press conference in March:

"It is hard for me to say the counseling part because I do not have a problem. I do not have an issue, and that is what I have been saying from the beginning."

And finally...

You can't think about this saga without considering that the lives of countless women have been forever affected by what has transpired. 

Watson's story has forced all of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we believe. Do we believe the more than 20 women who stepped forward and filed civil suits claiming sexual misconduct on the part of the three-time Pro Bowler? Or do we dismiss them because all but one has settled and no criminal charges were ever filed?

No matter where you come out on this issue, all of the alleged victims will have to deal with their own pain and trauma going forward. 

A road that's much bigger then the one that awaits the Browns this season.

More Deshaun Watson reporting:


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