Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence
When the Cleveland Browns traveled to Florida last week to play in an exhibition game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they were met with jeers and taunts. In and of itself, that behavior from fans might not seem all that unusual. However, this instance stands out from the rest: Those boos were directed toward a single Browns player — Deshaun Watson.
Watson, once primarily known for being a star quarterback out of Clemson University, has been accused of sexual assault by two dozen women. The civil lawsuits the women filed against him said that he “engaged in a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to perform personal services, coercing them to touch him in a sexual manner, exposing himself to women he had hired for massages, or moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis.”
Essentially, Watson has been accused of being a sexual predator, specifically targeting women he was paying to give him massages. The 24 women who made these allegations have also called out the Houston Texans, the team Watson was playing for at the time of these assaults, saying that “the team enabled Watson by providing him a nondisclosure agreement to give to therapists and by supplying the venue he used for some of his appointments.”
The NFL’s disciplinary officer, Sue Robinson, gave Watson a mere six-game suspension in the wake of these allegations; her reasoning was that the sexual assaults he was accused of were “nonviolent.” In the wake of this decision, the NFL decided to appeal the ruling — they are seeking a year-long suspension at minimum, recognizing that keeping Watson out of six games for assaulting two dozen women is ludicrous. As the process chugs along, Watson continues to practice and play in preseason games, which is what led to the encounter he and his teammates had with Jaguar fans just a few games ago.
Quite frankly, the way this entire situation has been handled has been disappointing. From the Browns deciding that Watson was worth employing even in the wake of these allegations to Robinson’s downright ridiculous ruling, the case of Deshaun Watson has made it immensely clear that the NFL is more than willing to protect and defend a player who has committed horrible acts.
Perhaps even more disappointing though, is that the list of times the NFL has done things like this goes far beyond Watson. There have been many instances in which an NFL player mistreated a woman and was let off the hook.
In 2014, for example, Ravens player Ray Rice was charged with aggravated assault after a video of him punching his fiancé and dragging her out of an elevator went viral. He was given an indefinite suspension by the league — until November of that same year, when he won the appeal he brought against the league, voiding the suspension immediately. Though his career never really recovered from the incident, and he has since retired, the NFL’s willingness to end the suspension signals just how little they care about women in the first place.
That same year, Greg Hardy received a 10-game suspension for attacking his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. Later, that suspension was reduced to a mere four games. There are many more NFL players whose stories follow along these same lines. Just look at Tyreek Hill, who threatened his fiancé in 2019 and did not miss a single game, or Antonio Brown, who was accused of rape and still waltzed his way onto the Buccaneers roster.
There is an undeniable pattern here, one in which men commit acts of violence against women and receive little to no punishment for it.
In short, the NFL has a serious problem — and it starts with how they treat women.
When the Rice video initially came out, the NFL’s immediate response made it seem as if things might change for the better on this front. As an article from The Guardian explained, “They updated their personal conduct policy to include a template six-game suspension for an act of violence, subject to more or less severity based on an investigation performed by NFL-hired investigators. They sent domestic violence experts to clubs to educate players and staff, claiming it would be an annual training. The players union formed a commission of domestic violence experts.” All these things were geared toward changing the environment within the league.
History shows that these promises of change did not hold up to the test of time, however. Those promised annual domestic violence trainings no longer occur at all. Members of the commission were so frustrated by the league’s inaction that they left. Above all else, the punishments given to players who are violent toward women are so ineffective that they might as well not exist at all.
There are many different steps that the league could take to make this problem better. For example, they could institute a minimum one-season suspension for players accused of domestic violence or assault; along those same lines, they could get rid of the appeals process in certain instances, such as when the player is facing criminal charges or there is video evidence of the assault like there was in the Rice incident. The NFL could also bring back that domestic violence commission and continue to send experts on the issue to speak to every team.
None of these solutions will entirely fix the treatment of women by NFL players, at least not on their own. There is no one singular answer to the question being asked. However, it has long since become apparent that the NFL does not value women and does not seem to be concerned with the violence and mistreatment they have let fester within the organization. For the sake of human decency, if nothing else, the NFL must change its culture surrounding the way that women are viewed and treated. Otherwise, they will almost certainly find themselves on the wrong side of history — a place where nobody wants their legacy to be.