The word must be out among pro football players: If you’re going to misbehave, make sure it involves drugs or women — but don’t let it involve money.
There’s no other way to look at Monday’s decision by a retired federal judge to suspend Cleveland quarterback DeShaun Watson for only six games after 24 massage therapists accused him of sexual misconduct while he was playing for the Houston Texans.
That is literally a suspension of one quarter of play for each woman who claimed Watson mistreated her. It’s a slap in the face to any NFL fan who has a young daughter. But it was one more good break for Watson, who earlier this year signed a $230 million fully guaranteed contract with the Browns in spite of the allegations against him.
This light treatment came even though the judge said in her report that the $230 million quarterback violated the league’s personal conduct policy in three ways, including engaging in sexual assault.
In an attempt to be fair to Watson, he has denied any inappropriate behavior. But the judge clearly did not believe him, citing the credible testimony of investigators. But really, the deciding believability factor is: who goes to 24 different massage therapists?
The NFL wanted Watson suspended for the entire 2022 season, and the league has appealed the judge’s decision. Commissioner Roger Goodell has appointed a former New Jersey attorney general to make the final call.
The most noteworthy element of the judge’s decision is that she based the length of the suspension on the rules in the league’s personal conduct policy. Translated, that means that the sort of behavior of which Watson is accused is not grounds for serious punishment. And there is some history to support this.
The most obvious example was in 2014, when Baltimore running back Ray Rice got caught on a hotel elevator camera knocking out his fiancee with a punch to the face. Goodell initially suspended him for only two games. After critics accused the league of tolerating domestic violence, a prosecutor stepped in. Rice was indicted and never played football again.
Three other cases speak volumes about what the NFL has taken much more seriously for a much longer period of time.
In 2012, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton got suspended for an entire year because of “bounty” payments to defensive players for big hits against opponents. In late 2021, the league suspended Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley for a full year because he bet $1,500 on his team to win while he was out with an injury.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Josh Gordon got suspended seven different times for his drug habit. But the league kept letting him back in!
This is not to defend cheap shots, gambling or drug use. But people in those cases lost a lot of football while a guy who a judge believes sexually mistreated women gets only six games? The NFL simply has got to get a clue.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal