Dr. Janine D’Anniballe, director of the non-profit group Moving to End Sexual Assault in Boulder County, Co., grew up a rabid fan of the Cleveland Browns. Even though she still streams Cleveland sports talk radio, her mornings often include streaming it. She heard on Monday that Deshaun Wilson, Browns’ quarterback was handed a suspension of six games after 24 women accuse him of misconduct in massage therapy.
D’Anniballe could barely believe the news. “My first thought was, those survivors, what is going on for them?” she says. “Six games? It’s less a slap on Watson’s wrist than a slap on their experience. That decision is saying, ‘your experience doesn’t matter.’”
Watson denied all allegations and has since settled 23 of the 24 civil cases against him. Despite all these legal problems, Watson was traded to the Browns by the Houston Texans and he received a $230 million guaranteed contract extension. This move, which was called savage by some critics and evidence of a sport culture that prizes winning more than anything else, has been criticized as pathetic.
The NFL recommended to the disciplinary officer picked by the league and the NFL players’ union, Sue Robinson, that Watson be suspended for at least the entire 2022 season and postseason—a penalty that D’Anniballe would have agreed with.
Although the NFL had the opportunity to speak with 12 of the women who brought suit against Watson in the lawsuit, the report was based on testimony from four therapists. Each of them told NFL investigators Watson demanded a towel to cover Watson’s private parts during massages. They alleged that Watson exposed his erect penis and intentionally contacted the therapists’ hands and arms with it. Watson, according to one of his therapists, ejaculated throughout the session.
In her written decision, Robinson called Watson’s conduct “predatory.” She said that “the NFL has carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report.”
Robinson, a former federal judge, also concluded that Watson “posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person” and cast “a negative light on the league and its players.” She acknowledged having “broad authority to determine the appropriate level of discipline,” subject to appeal. But she then landed on a punishment that doesn’t seem to fit the alleged crime.
Watson’s egregious acts, Robinson notes, don’t count as “violent conduct.” While Robinson does admit “it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct,” she refused to do so “without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players.”
The league can appeal Robinson’s decision. Tom Brady received a four-game suspension in 2015, since it was “more probable than not” that he was “at least generally aware” of a football deflation “scandal.” In 2018, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Mychal Kendricks received an indefinite suspension after he was found guilty of insider trading: he missed eight games. 2019 saw Vontaze Burfict, of the Oakland Raiders, being penalized twelve games. Calvin Ridley, of the Atlanta Falcons, will also miss this season after he placed bets while away from the team. He was concentrating on his mental health.
Watson’s six-game penalty is “incredibly weak,” according to D’Anniballe. “The thing that’s driving me crazy in this is, Sue Robinson came out and said there’s no physical violence. The fact that there has been no physical violence in around 80% of the sexual assault cases is what I’m claiming loud and clear. It is very rare to sustain physical injury. In sexual assault cases, most of the force used is emotional, coercive, threats, or any other form of manipulation. I can say, based on the literally thousands and thousands of sexual assault survivors I’ve worked with in the field, is that the impact is no less devastating.”
In Texas, Watson was not indicted by two grand juries earlier in the year. “These types of cases can get very complicated when the allegations are made against somebody who’s in the public eye,” says Lisa Houlé, who prosecuted sex crimes in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and now works as a criminal defense lawyer. “Because a defense attorney can usually say, ‘Well, they’re coming after my client for some other motive, and usually that motive is money.’”
The NFL can still impose harsh punishments, even if criminal courts are wrong. Recently retired Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, for example, was suspended six games a dozen years ago for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, even though prosecutors did not charge Roethlisberger in a case involving a 20-year-old college student, who accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Georgia nightclub.
“What we know is that the criminal justice system is flawed,” says Donisha Greene, community engagement director for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center “This decision just kind of further perpetuates the rape culture. What’s sad is that it further reveals a pattern in which we shift the blame from perpetrator to victims, and it’s not okay.”
Since the early 2000s, D’Anniballe has planned an annual trip from Colorado to a Browns game, to reunite with family and friends. She doubts she’ll be doing so this year. “I’ll still probably watch the games,” she says. “I’ll still root for them. They’re so much a part of my family’s history, and culture. But it’s not with excitement. And it’s not with fervor. It’s with a pit in my stomach and frankly, a disdain for the decision they made” to trade for Watson, and guarantee him $230 million.
The message that the NFL sends is even worse. “It’s clear,” says D’Anniballe, “the message that if this happens again, ‘Yeah, well, we’ll probably do the same,’ which is, look into it and talk a good game, but in the end, not do too much about it.”
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