Assessing the Deshaun Watson Situation

I know. This isn’t the type of fun topic you were likely hoping to see me write about this week. Unfortunately, new developments have necessitated that we talk about Deshaun Watson the man again, not the football player. In this article, we’ll briefly review what has happened to this point, and then we’ll discuss the news that broke this week. If you’re well-read on this situation and want to skip straight to the new stuff and the analysis, click here.

How did the Deshaun Watson situation start?

To start off, let’s look back at how this all began. After the Texans finished 4-12 in January of 2021, the team hired a new GM in Nick Caserio without consulting Watson. This was within their rights, but Watson was nevertheless upset, and he demanded a trade later that month. However, just two months later, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee announced that a massage therapist was filing a lawsuit against Watson for sexual assault. Within four weeks of the first filing, an additional 21 women (all massage therapists) sued him for similar misconduct, bringing the total to 22. The Texans, who initially did not want to trade Watson, were now ready to move on from him and his messy situation, but nobody was willing to take that risk. Watson would remain on the inactive list for the entire season, making $10M while not playing. The Dolphins and Panthers inquired at different points, but neither team pulled the trigger, with Miami owner Stephen Ross demanding that Watson settle all cases before a trade could be consummated. By the end of 2021, two criminal cases were filed against Watson, and trade talks died down.

How did the Deshaun Watson trade go down?

In March of 2022, two grand juries declined to file charges against Watson in the pair of criminal cases, citing a lack of evidence. With his criminal liability seemingly behind him, teams renewed their interest. The Browns, Panthers, Falcons, and Saints all cleared cap space and formed offers for the Texans. Each of these teams was willing to meet the Texans’ price of 3 first-round picks and more. After eliminating the Browns, Watson, armed with a full no-trade clause with which he could select his destination, settled on the Falcons. Until his team got greedy. Somehow unsatisfied with his 4 year/$160M deal, he and his agent asked for a new deal, and Atlanta balked at this request. Cleveland let it be known that they would be willing to meet that additional demand, and suddenly, it was announced that Watson was becoming a Cleveland Brown. Cleveland shipped 3 first-round picks, a third, and two fourths for Watson and a sixth, the largest trade in NFL history in terms of first-round picks changing hands.

What kind of contract did the Browns give Watson?

The deal Cleveland agreed to that made Watson change his mind and select them is absolutely ludicrous. He signed for 5 years and $230M FULLY GUARANTEED. That $46M/year average already put him behind only Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, but it was by far the largest sum of fully guaranteed money given to any player in league history (Rodgers’ $150M was the previous high). And that wasn’t the end of this crazy deal. Normally, if a player is suspended under the NFL’s personal conduct policy, his team can void all remaining guarantees in his deal. Watson, almost assuredly staring at a 6-game suspension, couldn’t have that. So the Browns put a carveout in the deal, stating that the guarantees could not be voided due to this specific issue. But I’m not done; they went further. A 6-game suspension would have cost Watson 6/17 of his salary (6 game checks out of 17 total). At $46M per year, that comes out to $16.24M in lost income. Therefore, the Browns set his 2022 salary to a mere $1M, with the remaining $45M as a signing bonus. That way, if he got suspended this season, he would lose only 6/17 of $1M, or a hair under $353K.

What happened with Deshaun Watson this week that was so special?

A couple of weeks ago, a 23rd woman sued Watson, but this wasn’t particularly notable. This week, a 24th woman sued him, and this case IS notable. What’s the difference? The 23rd woman filed a plain civil suit that will likely end up being lumped in with the first 22. The 24th woman’s suit contained more graphic details. She claimed that during a massage session, Watson ejaculated on her. Making Watson’s week worse, The New York Times published an article stating that Watson had booked massages with at least 66 women over a 17-month span. The story additionally indicted the Texans, claiming that the team had provided Watson with the membership to the spa at which he had all of these appointments, as well as the nondisclosure agreements he forced the women to sign.

What does this all mean for Watson, the Browns, and the Texans?

To answer that question, we must address several subquestions.

1. The Browns said they did their homework. But did they?

Cleveland’s front office claims that they did their due diligence on Watson and would never have traded for him if they weren’t comfortable with the results of their investigation. This leads us to three separate scenarios. In the first case, the Browns did their homework, but did a poor job of it. That would be extremely Cleveland, but they have good attorneys and the cash to hire top-notch investigators, so this case doesn’t seem likely. Case 2 would involve the Browns not doing their homework and lying by saying they did. The GM and owners might have been blinded by Watson’s tantalizing talent, not wanting to learn any information that could block them from acquiring him on moral grounds. That would be dumb, but again, these are the Browns we’re talking about. The third case is by far the most damning: the Browns did their homework, did it well, and proceeded with the trade anyway. Unfortunately, this is the most likely option due to how NFL teams operate. They prioritize football talent over off-field problems. If Watson were a poor QB, he’d be gone from the NFL for good. However, he’s not a poor QB; he’s quite good. Thus, teams will look the other way even in the face of reprehensible conduct until a PR disaster forces them to bend to public opinion. None of these options are good, but I’d guess that the Browns actually did their homework and chose to make the deal in spite of it.

2. Did the Texans withhold vital information during trade discussions or their conversations with the NFL, and could they get in trouble?

Even if the Browns truly investigated Watson the way they should have, the part about the Texans supplying the spa and NDAs might not have been available knowledge. The Texans would obviously want to hide that to avoid the wrath of the league, the fans, and law enforcement. I imagine they hoped these details would never get out, both to maximize their return for their disgruntled QB and to save their own hides. The NFL would certainly fine the team a large sum of money for their conduct, and other penalties could be imposed based on further information. Depending on who was actually involved in this scheme, the discipline could range from internal firings to forfeited draft picks or even to a forced sale of the team in an extreme case. Legally, the situation could be worse. If the Texans actively enabled Watson to commit sexual assault, they’re guilty of crimes as well, and the state’s attorney general could get involved. As of now, they’ve just been added as defendants to the existing suits.

3. Does any of this impact Watson’s availability on the field?

The 24th woman’s suit could have a massive impact on Watson’s ability to play this year. While the legal system deals with all the lawsuits, the NFL is conducting its own investigation. Once that is completed, the commissioner will decide on discipline. It’s important to note that a lack of legal consequences does not mean that he will escape punishment from the league, as their standard of judgment is different. Additionally, the new lawsuit and information could extend the length of the investigation. Roger Goodell could decide to place Watson on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, which would make him ineligible to play while still receiving his full salary. The league did not take that step last year because Watson and the team mutually agreed that he wouldn’t play while still getting paid; this had the same effect. Now, the salary in question is much higher, and the Browns won’t want to pay that for a player who can’t suit up. Even if Watson is not placed on that list, his likelihood of being given a suspension is increasing with each new fact that comes to light. Therefore, the question seems to be not if Watson will miss time but when and how much.

4. Does this new woman coming forward give the Browns a bailout regarding their $230M guarantee and the carveout they provided for this issue?

I found this information about the contract in an NBC Sports article by Mike Florio: “The contract exempts from the standard default/guarantee void language a suspension imposed by the league ‘solely in connection with matters disclosed to Club in writing pursuant to paragraph 42 and such suspension results in Player’s unavailability to Club solely for games during the 2022 or 2023 NFL League Years.‘”
Furthermore, “Watson ‘represents and warrants (except as disclosed to club in writing), as of the date hereof, that (i) Player has not been charged with, indicted for, convicted of or pled nolo contende to any felony and/or misdemeanor involving fraud or moral turpitude, (ii) Player has not engaged in conduct which would subject him to a charge, indictment or conviction of any such offense, and (iii) no circumstances exist that would prevent Player’s continuing availability to the Club for the duration of this Contract.'”
Based on my extremely limited legal knowledge, that LOOKS like it would give the Browns a couple of paths for evasion. First, if he lied to them about “engaging in such conduct”, that’s easy: the guarantees are gone. Another easy one: complaint 24 actually suggests that he could be indicted based on “ejaculating on her face”, which would clearly violate the “moral turpitude” clause.
The more murky option would be if no charges arose and he didn’t directly lie to the Browns but still behaved in reprehensible conduct that was not specifically included in the deal. It is fair to guess that the contract was written based on the then-current 22 women, or at most 23 based on the one who came forward a couple of weeks ago. Why not 24? Well, Watson’s attorney says he didn’t know her name until today, which means that her suit isn’t one they could’ve prepared for when talking to the Browns. If that is true, then he would be violating the contract because he did not “disclose” that fact to the club. If somehow the contract is general enough that it counts the newest suit as something the club was told about, then it might be hard for the Browns to escape the deal unless Watson is suspended in 2024 or beyond (if the courts and league investigation take an extremely long time).

5. Could the Browns actually get a refund on their picks if the Texans are guilty of what we think they are?

This is the hardest question to try and answer right now. When Watson first sought a trade and the initial lawsuits were announced, the prevailing thought was that any team trading for Watson would require protections to be placed on any picks they gave up in the event he was suspended, found guilty of a crime, or engaged in conduct that would force the new team to cut him. It seems that the interested teams (other than Miami) only cared about the criminal cases; once those were resolved, they made offers for Watson without asking for pick protections. Still, this is an unusual situation if the Texans lied to both their trade partner and the league. In that case, it may be determined that the trade was executed under false premises. From what I understand, the NFL is allowed to veto a trade if it violates league rules. It is currently unclear whether there are limits to that provision (for example, if a trade is already complete, can it still be reversed? If so, how long after the trade can that be done?). I imagine that it will take a while for the NFL and the legal system to make their rulings; Watson might have been a member of the Browns for over a year by the time his situation is fully understood. I really don’t see the commissioner completely reverting a trade after that long, but adjusting the pick compensation might be a possibility.

What’s next for Deshaun Watson?

For now, he waits. He’ll participate in minicamp, practice, and play until the league tells him he can’t. The Browns and Watson will hope that this story fades with time and that he can focus on football. Stars usually get special treatment, but Watson hasn’t played in a game in over a year; has his star fallen some since then? Browns fans are not all enthused about the trade, and some are outright disgusted. If the team doesn’t get off to a fast start, they won’t be very patient. Remember: Watson is viewed as the piece that makes the Browns Super Bowl contenders. Anything less than a deep playoff run will be viewed as a failure. Given how the NFL handles such situations, it wouldn’t surprise me if Watson plays the whole 2022 season. League investigations take a lot of time, and the NFL might want to stick it to the Browns for their contract shenanigans by suspending Watson during 2023, when his salary is the full $46M again. Investigators may not find enough evidence to suspend him a proper number of games.

My first question for Watson would be this: even if he says he did not behave poorly, why would he need 66 massage therapists, 24 of which are independently suing him? The team provides massage therapists to its players, so he would theoretically need only 1, MAYBE 2 more beyond that for massages at home. Whatever your opinion is of his guilt or character, the indisputable fact is that the optics of the situation do not look good. They look bad for Watson, worse for the Browns, and somehow, perhaps worse for the Texans. The ultimate consequences (or lack thereof) faced by all parties will disappoint people no matter what. But one thing is for certain: Deshaun Watson is a bit less comfortable about his future than he was this time last week.

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