The NFL says it holds players to account for their personal conduct. Is Deshaun Watson's case shattering that illusion?

By Amy Woodyatt and Ben Morse, CNN

    (CNN) -- It's been months since the Houston Texans agreed to trade embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns, but the furor over the deal -- described by one NFL observer as a case of "talent trumps trouble" -- just won't go away.

In March, a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, declined to charge Watson over allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct after determining there was not enough evidence to charge him with a crime. The incidents were described as "stemming from massage therapy sessions," according to a statement on the NFL website.

Meanwhile, a second grand jury in Brazoria County, Texas, in March declined to indict Watson after considering evidence in a criminal complaint alleging sexual misconduct, also during a massage therapy session.

However, Watson still faces 22 civil complaints from his accusers, many of them alleging sexual assault and misconduct during massage sessions.

Watson has repeatedly denied the accusations of sexual assault and misconduct made against him, and Watson's attorney Rusty Hardin said in a statement "I believe that any allegation that Deshaun forced a woman to commit a sexual act is completely false."

NFL officials were scheduled to meet with Watson last week, as the fallout from his trade continues, according to NFL.com, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. A decision on his potential suspension is looming, but timelines for this remain unclear.

Hardin told CNN that Watson met with the NFL for three days. The league has also requested one more day, though the date and location have not yet been determined, added Hardin.

Journalist Melissa Jacobs, founder and managing editor of 'The Football Girl,' told CNN that after Watson's signing with the Browns, she felt "disgust, disappointment, I guess, ickiness, but also not surprised at all because we saw the makings of this happening."

Watson's five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract from the Browns would be the highest guaranteed money given to an NFL player, according to ESPN. If a player is fully guaranteed, money in a player contract is protected for skill, cap and injury. Cleveland is set to begin organized team activities on May 24.

At an introductory news conference with the Browns in March, when asked about his off-the-field situation, Watson answered: "I don't have any regrets. Like I said before, the things that are off the field right now that came up caught me by surprise because I never did anything that these people are alleging."

Watson's attorney Rusty Hardin told CNN he couldn't predict the outcome of the civil cases but added: "We really strongly believe that he didn't do what he's accused of doing."

"I'm struck by the way people have just moved on without recognizing the significance of the law enforcement decision that there was no crime committed," he said.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski in March defended the decision to trade for Watson, saying, "I think Deshaun's ready to make a positive impact on this community and I can tell you, just with my time spent with Deshaun in the past few days -- getting to know him and getting to know this person -- I'm looking forward to this community getting to know this person."

However, some say the trade is hard to stomach given Watson still faces numerous civil suits regarding allegations of sexual assault and misconduct.

One of the civil suits filed called Watson a "serial predator," and others also filed in April allege he "assaulted and harassed" the women by "exposing himself" or "touching (them) with his penis." Another additionally alleges Watson tried to make one woman perform oral sex on him.

"It's not to say that Deshaun Watson should never be allowed to play in the NFL," added Jacobs. "It's just that there's still civil cases ongoing and the NFL investigation is ongoing.

"So why not let the legal process play out? It's just one of the most in-your-face examples of 'talent trumps trouble' that I feel like the NFL has ever had."


Testing the personal conduct policy


Watson remains under investigation by the NFL -- though Commissioner Roger Goodell said there was "no time frame" on a decision by a joint disciplinary officer.

"Obviously, these are serious charges. We're looking at this seriously," Goodell told reporters in March.

"We now have obviously at least resolution from the criminal side of it. Obviously there are still civil charges that are going on. So our investigators hopefully will have access to more information, and that will be helpful obviously in getting to the conclusion of what are the facts and was there a violation of the personal-conduct policy," he said.

Under that policy, Goodell could choose to place a player on the exempt list "when a player is formally charged with a crime of violence" or when an NFL investigation "leads the commissioner to believe that a player may have violated" the policy.

The exempt list is a device the NFL can use to place players on paid leave while they are under investigation if it is thought they might have violated the league's personal conduct policy.

Players can also be temporarily placed on the list if a "violation relating to a crime of violence is suspected but further investigation is required" to allow the league to conduct its own investigation.

Running back Kareem Hunt was placed on the exempt list in 2018 after he was seen on video pushing and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel. He was released by the Kansas City Chiefs shortly after.

The Browns signed Hunt just months later, despite a league suspension hanging over his head. Weeks later, Hunt was suspended for eight games for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy, stemming from physical altercations at his Cleveland residence in February 2018 and at a resort in Ohio in June.

At the time of writing, a decision on Watson's playing status has not been made. He would, in theory, be able to play when the season begins in September, though a decision on a potential punishment or suspension is expected soon.

A few weeks after Watson was traded to the Browns, another major US sports league showed its commitment to punishing players found to have violated its domestic violence and sexual assault policy. Major League Baseball announced in April it suspended Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer for two years (324 championship season games) without pay, for violation of the league's domestic violence and sexual assault policy following an extensive investigation. Bauer has consistently denied the allegations.

In February, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said Bauer would not face criminal charges for the sexual assault accusations.

As far as the NFL, commentators say the league's and teams' treatment of other players accused of wrongdoing works as a blueprint for how it regards a player's personal conduct.

"As far as actions off the field and what priorities are, I think that line was drawn a long time ago with any number of people you could point to that were brought back to help teams win games after various levels of transgression," Tim Benz, a sports columnist for the Tribune-Review, told CNN Sports.

"Whether it was Kareem Hunt or Michael Vick, or when Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual misconduct twice and was never actually charged with any crimes, he still got suspended for six games and was brought back and went on to have a career that they just honored him for for an entire year in Pittsburgh.

"Josh Gordon's another example with their own drug policy, which he violated numerous times over, and every time you turn around, he gets a new job with someone," Benz added.

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told CNN that when "players or personnel violate the policies they are held responsible and disciplined. If a player earns his way back to playing by serving a suspension and undergoing mandatory training and evaluations we will consider it," adding that that's what happened with Hunt, Vick and Roethlisberger, who had "no further discipline issues."


A "continuous assault" on women, rights groups warn


Some women's rights organizations see the Watson case as a continuation of policies and an attitude that are damaging to women.

Rosa Beltré, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told CNN that Watson's trade was "disheartening, but it was not a surprise."

"This is a continuous assault, as well as revictimization, and it's been the position of many businesses and organizations," Beltré said.

Football teams' and leagues' behaviors often don't match their public messaging around violence against women, she said.

"While they can have campaigns, or they could go ahead and have their players give their time, talent, supposedly for a cause, the decisions that they make normally do not walk alongside their talk."

She said that "over and over again," clubs and leagues have shown it is more important to win a championship and sell tickets than to punish players in order to demonstrate the importance of the team's values.

"So the message that they clearly sent is that once again: money, status, wins are more important than believing, supporting, seeing and recognizing the harm that is done against women by their athletes, by their boards, by their executives."

Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said in a statement to CNN: "The survivors in this case have been vocal about how damaging it has been to witness the person who they reported for assault and abuse go without consequences and move on to achieve success and celebrated status in their personal and professional lives.

"What can be very powerful in honoring the experiences of these survivors is when we as a society recognize that people who commit acts of sexual violence sometimes abuse celebrity or authority status -- and the illusion of trust that comes with it -- to act in abusive ways and evade responsibility."

Meanwhile, Tony Buzbee, the lawyer for the women pursuing civil suits against Watson told CNN: "The NFL is a joke, when it comes to this particular issue," and said he believes the NFL didn't take its internal investigation regarding Watson seriously.

"It didn't take me very long to figure out just in that process that the NFL wasn't serious about it. They're just not serious. They're serious about how many people you can put in the stands, how much merchandise you can sell, and how far you can throw the football. They're not concerned and are not serious about, you know, codes of conduct, things that are said, done, off the field," Buzbee said.

He said that in interviews between the NFL investigators and Watson's accusers: "One of the very first questions asked is, 'What were you wearing?' That speaks volumes to me.

"As if, as if the women somehow were in the wrong because of something they wore at what was supposed to be a professional massage session."

McCarthy, the NFL spokesperson, told CNN "the question related to what the women were wearing was to help get a full understanding of the incidents," and said the legal team for the women did not object to the question at the time.

"It was in no way intended to... make the women feel uncomfortable or assign blame," he added.

But some experts say the NFL's handling of cases like Watson's get in the way of breaking the cycle of violence against women.

"All too often our society, criminal legal system, and private institutions fail to hold those who commit sexual harassment, assault, and abuse accountable," Palumbo said. "Whenever sexual harassment and abuse are not taken seriously and handled with impunity, this contributes to the cycle of future harm."

Beltré agrees. "You cannot talk about restorative justice or giving a person a second opportunity when they never claim or admit their wrongdoing, and they move on in life as if nothing has happened, which gives them more power and opportunity to continue hurting others.

"What the NFL and other organizations have seen is that talent is more valuable than the harm that he's causing with his behavior," she said.

McCarthy told CNN the league has mandatory domestic violence and sexual assault training for everyone in the NFL, including players, coaches and staff, which were developed in conjunction with domestic violence and sexual assault experts.

Watson's attorney Hardin said that the NFL had been "totally responsible" in the way they had handled things so far.

"What they tried to avoid is any suggestion by law enforcement, that by talking to potential witnesses and potential complainants or making accusations or so they might very well get in the way of and hinder the official criminal investigation.

"Law enforcement has always preferred that private agencies who are looking into the conduct of their employees wait to conduct their investigations until the official investigation is complete," he added.

He added that the NFL has now been "very aggressively" pursuing the investigation.


Mixed reactions among fans


Some fans are angry about Watson's transfer. "I think they care," Benz told CNN. "I also think that they know if they win, (the anger will) go away."

He points to the past as evidence of this.

"There were a lot of people saying that they'd never root for the Steelers again after they brought Michael Vick in for a few weeks. I don't think that deadened the fan base in Pittsburgh by any stretch of the imagination."

Nationally, there has been a "resurgence in TV ratings and streaming numbers in the NFL this year, after two or three years of many football fans saying: 'I'll never watch the National Football League again because of the national anthem controversy," said Benz, referring to player protests that began with Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand as the national anthem played before NFL games.

"That's disappeared," he added.

"As far as the Browns case in particular, there's a franchise that is starved, perhaps more than any of the National Football League, for a Super Bowl and a football-rabid community.

"And if Deshaun Watson ends up getting them there and winning them one, I don't think any concerns that the Browns might have about the reaction of the fan base will be a whisper in their ear by the time the Vince Lombardi Trophy is hoisted in Cleveland, should it come to that," he said.

Jacobs said the NFL's handling of similar situations points to a reactive, not proactive, strategy.

"I think the NFL is very interested in problems going away, and they're very reactive to issues like diversity, and back when the Ray Rice tape came out and there was so much anger out there, and that's when they instituted their policy," she said, referring to the former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, who viciously knocked out his fiancée Janay in a casino elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 2014 after a night of heavy drinking. The incident was captured on surveillance video.

Rice was indefinitely suspended by the NFL for violating its domestic violence policy -- a decision he successfully appealed, though no teams went on to sign him during his free agency.

"They're never on top of these things, like ever. Those parts of their history need to be written," added Jacobs.

Once a player has been punished, she said, some TV broadcasters rarely repeat why a sanctioned player has missed games, simply telling audiences, "Oh, he was suspended for four games. Now he's back."

In the aftermath of a scandal and when a player is back on the field, "it's more of the same," Jacobs said.

"They just sort of gloss over things to make it seem as if everybody is this wonderful, altruistic person," she said.

McCarthy told CNN that the league's official website (nfl.com) and TV network (NFL Network) report on every incident and suspension.

"After Ray Rice, there were PSAs out there," Jacobs said.

Los Angeles-based filmmakers Made by Women Media created a public service announcement "NO HITS" calling on the NFL to "stop tolerating abuse."

In 2014, following the furor over Rice's behavior, the union for professional football players, the NFL Players Association, put together a commission on domestic violence to give recommendations on how to tackle domestic violence and other issues facing the league. The NFLPA is an organization separate to the NFL.

"They had brought on an advisory committee and they went to educate players and especially men to stand up when they see something. And then that just went away," Jacobs said, adding that members of the commission quit because their recommendations weren't taken seriously.

Deborah Epstein, one of the commissioners who resigned, said that she did so because of a failure by the union to act on recommendations.

"My NFLPA contacts would initially greet these ideas with a burst of enthusiasm and an indication of likely implementation, but efforts to follow up would yield nothing in the way of specific plans, and eventually communication would fade into radio silence," she wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post in June of 2018.

Jacobs made clear she isn't implying Watson is guilty.

"However, if you're going to allow the Deshaun Watsons of the world and people maybe in that 'probable, not definite but maybe' [category] then I do think, you as a league, have a responsibility to be open about violence against women, sexual assault, all those things like as a regular part of your programming.

"Again, talk about why these people were suspended, and offer programs to players. There just needs to be more invested into this [sports] world if you're going to allow potential perpetrators to exist in your league," she said.

The-CNN-Wire
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