Photo: Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images
  /  09.07.2022

The NFL offseason was eventful, to say the least. The small 15-week window between the end of the regular season and the start of training camp was bookended by two high-profile suspensions dished out for violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. No doubt, the biggest story has been now-Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. In addition to dealing with a contentious breakup with the Houston Texans, who drafted him with the No. 12 pick in 2017, the former Clemson Tiger was slammed with 24 allegations of sexual assault. The women, all masseuses, accused Watson of lewd and coercive activities during massage appointments.

Prior to the allegations going public, he demanded a trade following the 2020 season and sat out the 2021 season due to “non-injury reasons/personal matters,” despite attending organized team activities (OTAs) and training camp with the team. On March 18, a year to the day that the league announced their investigation into the allegations, the Browns traded for the three-time Pro Bowler, signing him to a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million deal — the largest contract and most guaranteed money in NFL history. It was a move that divided the fanbase morally and sports-wise, considering the reality that Watson would face some type of suspension.

During this time, Watson lost more than playing time. His endorsement deals with Nike and Beats by Dre were suspended, and Reliant Energy and grocery chain H-E-B publicly stated they had no desire to work with the signal caller in the future. That same month, the Houston Police Department launched an investigation into criminal complaints filed by some of the accusers. On March 11, 2022 – a week before the trade – a grand jury cleared Watson of any criminal charges in nine complaints, although the civil cases remained. On March 24, a second grand jury declined to press charges on a 10th complaint. The entire time these developments were taking place, the NFL was reluctant to levy any type of consequences as Commissioner Roger Goodell stated that the league did not wish to interfere with the police investigation. Following the October owners meeting, Goodell said, “We don’t have all the access to that information [that the police have] and pride ourselves on not interfering with it. That process is ongoing.” Fast forward to present day and Watson has settled 23 of the 24 civil suits; however, he has steadfastly voiced his innocence in the matter.

With the Watson sweepstakes over, attention turned to the NFL and what the league planned to do in the form of discipline. Goodell was clear that Watson would not go on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, which is another term for paid leave. While on the list, players are paid but do not count toward the team’s 53-man roster. During that time, said player is not allowed to practice or attend games and is only allowed to visit the facility for meetings, to work out, and receive treatment. While Watson was out of the woods with regards to the criminal matter, whether or not he violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy was a whole different ballgame. “We’ve been very clear with every club, whether the criminal matter gets resolved or not, that the personal conduct policy is very important to us,” Goodell told Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com. “They understand that’s something we’re going to pursue.”

Retired Judge Sue L. Robinson, appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association to oversee player discipline, issued a six-game suspension at the beginning of August after coming to the conclusion that Watson exhibited predatory and egregious conduct — a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Amid backlash, the NFL appealed and extended the suspension to 11 games while fining the quarterback $5 million. Many were outraged and pointed to the very recent suspension of Calvin Ridley, the Atlanta Falcons’ wide receiver. Ridley has been suspended indefinitely after betting on NFL games. The initial six-game suspension was seen as a slap in the face but while it may not be popular opinion, the cases of Watson and Ridley are like apples and oranges as far as discipline is concerned.

Robinson’s recommendation was consistent with the precedent exercised by the league in which a player was found to be in violation of the policy but not convicted of a crime. Case in point: Recently retired Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Benjamin Roethlisberger was initially suspended for six games back in 2010 after a sexual assault allegation; it was later reduced to four games. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was also suspended for six games in 2017 for domestic violence allegations from which no criminal charges stemmed. While the league was pushing for indefinite suspension, they simply could not buck precedent. In order to be in violation, there only has to be reasonable evidence of misconduct, and Watson and his team acknowledged that sexual activity — allegedly consensual — occurred.

Ridley took a break from football to address mental health concerns beginning on Halloween of last year. In March, it was announced that he engaged in sports betting over a five-day period in November. Ridley’s activities were brought to the attention of the league by the legal sports betting industry. It was determined that the former Alabama receiver placed multilegged parlay bets involving three, five, and eight games that had his team winning. Although he also bet on other sports during the same time span, the league was only concerned with his NFL bets, which were a direct violation of the conduct policy. He has been suspended indefinitely. After Robinson’s findings, Ridley took to Twitter to share his thoughts on what many felt was a slight slap on the wrist for Watson. “Free Calvin Ridley!!!” said the since-deleted tweet. Ridley also disclosed at the time of his disciplinary announcement that he only gambled $1,500.

It could be argued – and has been argued – that the NFL was protecting its own brand with the updated 11-game suspension. After all, Watson’s first game back will be against his former team, the Texans, so it’s a really compelling argument. However, when it comes to comparing the transgressions of both players, the answer is simple. Watson was accused and has not been proven guilty of anything. Text messages and Instagram DMs on both sides – both Watson’s and the accusers – lend to a very gray area, whereas Ridley’s gambling is black and white. How the league decides to discipline both violations differs in its philosophy. While conduct is subjective, the stance on betting on your own sport is clearly spelled out. There’s also the matter of collateral damage that Ridley’s actions could cause. While this is no attempt to minimize the severity of Watson’s actions, the scope of fallout is minimized to the accusers, the Browns and Watson. The integrity of the league as a whole comes into question when it comes to betting – regardless of whether it’s your own team or another NFL club.

Unfortunately for the NFL, its handling of the situation sits as another stain when it comes to protecting women. It does lead to the notion that the conduct policy and its enforcement need to be adjusted – on both the NFL end and the NFL Players Association side of things.

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