This is Roger Goodell trying to be the hero, gauging the winds of public perception, discovering his paying customers are unhappy about the Deshaun Watson suspension and deciding, therefore, to Do Something. This is Goodell at his most incompetent, trying to be an actual human being with actual values when he’s just an empty if tailored suit, a $64 million bag of hot air. He doesn’t stand for anything, just flails around when he’s made a mess, and makes it worse.
Goodell is about to make the Watson story worse.
Any idea how hard that is to do?
Watson has written a hideous story, one as old as time about a powerful man who sees women as objects to be used for pleasure and tossed aside. I’d say Watson has mistaken massage therapists for prostitutes, but that’s an imperfect analogy because prostitutes are people too, and Watson is accused of treating dozens of women as sexual toys, something he can find online, have it delivered to his home or hotel room, and discard when he’s done.
Watson’s alleged behavior has led to 24 civil lawsuits, two grand juries convened and his former team, the Houston Texans, settling potential lawsuits with 30 different massage therapists telling the same stories of sexual misconduct and even assault. It has led to a protracted NFL investigation that found, according to the disciplinary officer tasked with deciding his punishment, “predatory” behavior that posed “a genuine danger to the safety and well-being” of women.
That’s the story Watson wrote. And it’s horrifying.
Along comes Sue L. Robinson, the disciplinary officer in question, to bungle the punishment. Robinson decided justice for Watson, now with the NFL’s highest fully guaranteed contract with the Cleveland Browns, is a six-game suspension to start the 2022 NFL season. That’s one quarter of one game – 15 minutes – for each of the women who filed suit. That’s what Robinson decided their nightmare is worth.
Robinson took the Watson story, the worst kind of graphic novel, and somehow made it more offensive.
And along comes Goodell, doing what he does best: Wandering through the enormous NFL landscape, a field with one obvious spot to avoid, and stepping in it.
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On the one hand, yes, of course we want Watson to pay more – to suffer more – than the ridiculous six-game suspension handed out by Robinson. She’s a former U.S. District Court judge. Just one more example of the incompetence in our federal judiciary.
But let’s not be like Goodell here, OK? Let’s see the big picture, all of it, not just one piece. Granted, Watson’s punishment has been the most important piece for months, and news of that punishment broke this week. But again, let’s not be like Goodell and discover a mess – a mess absolutely of his own creation, by the way – and “fix” it in a way that leads to more messes down the road, more messes to fix.
Since 2007, when Goodell introduced a tough new personal conduct policy, he has chased one mistake after another, his devastating incompetence on display. Goodell values nothing more than his paycheck, and a person driven by such self-interest will do the right thing only when the right thing happens to align with his direct deposit slip.
This didn’t start in 2014, when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice walked into an elevator with his fiancée and then, seconds later, dragged her unconscious body out. But that’s the most important moment, the one where Goodell decided Ray Rice should be suspended two games. (Rice was later suspended indefinitely after video of the incident was released by TMZ.)
That was the most obvious example of Goodell’s bankrupt moral code, not that he’d been hiding it.
In 2006, Chicago Bears cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge of punching and kicking a man unconscious outside a Denny’s restaurant in Los Angeles. Goodell decided on a one-game suspension.
In 2008, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Darrion Scott pleaded guilty to child endangerment after putting a plastic bag over the head of his 2-year-old son. A real commissioner, a real human being with actual values, would’ve suspended Scott for the season, if not forever, and dared the NFLPA to appeal it. Goodell decided three games was enough.
The list goes on: Three games for Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer in 2015 after he pleaded guilty to an incident where his wife suffered a broken nose. Four games for Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle in 2015 after police accused him of breaking a car window in an argument with the mother of his son, then threatening the woman and their child with a gun. Six games in 2021 for Washington running back Derrius Guice after accusations of three different incidents of domestic violence against the same woman, pushing her to the ground one time, choking her unconscious another.
These were the precedents facing Robinson when she suspended Watson six games. It would be unfair to give him more, Robinson noted in her ruling. A real judge, a true advocate of justice, would’ve treated Watson’s behavior – “unprecedented,” the NFL called it, and she agreed – with something unprecedented. A real judge would have had the courage to follow Watson outside the box, and create a new precedent.
Alas, the NFL was stuck with Robinson.
Do you know why that is?
It could last years, or end now
For 13 years after introducing his personal conduct policy, Goodell served as judge. He’d hear arguments on both sides – one side being his side – and then go sit by himself in the jury box and decide on the player’s fate. Then he’d hurry back to the judge’s chair and issue a sentence.
The process was horribly unfair, of course, and players could appeal. Their appeal would land on the desk of Goodell.
The NFLPA insisted on an independent arbiter of justice during the latest round of collective bargaining, and so it was written into the Collective Bargaining Agreement of 2020.
Article 46, Section 1, part e: “Fines or suspensions imposed upon players for violating the League’s Personal Conduct Policy, as well as whether a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy has been proven by the NFL, will be initially determined by a Disciplinary Officer jointly selected and appointed by the parties.”
That’s Robinson. The Watson case was her first attempt. She failed, but the CBA allows for either side to appeal. When an appeal is filed, as the NFL has done in Watson’s case, that argument is heard by the commissioner, or by someone appointed by the commissioner. One of Goodell’s stooges, in other words.
So here we are. Goodell made this mess because of his incompetence, from start to finish – from 2007 to this very day – and now he gets the final swing. Well, not really: The NFLPA can go beyond the confines of the CBA and sue for relief.
This thing could drag on for months, if not years.
Again, repeat after me: Watson deserved more than a six-game suspension. But that’s what he got. The wrong move is not for Goodell to stick his manicured index finger into the air, gauge your anger and try to be the hero.
The right move is for Goodell to suffer this indignity, for the Browns to suffer this indignity, for Watson to suffer this indignity, for Robinson to suffer this indignity. The right move is for this thing they’re calling justice in the case of The NFL v. Deshaun Watson to stand where it is, at a pathetic six games – a monument to the evil of Watson’s deeds, the nakedly amoral ambition of the Browns, and the incompetence of Robinson and Goodell.
Sometimes the best way to fix a decaying building is to burn the damn thing down. In the story of Watson, let it burn.