Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
Deshaun Watson is set to return to the National Football League after a nearly two-year hiatus. Unfortunately, the return of one of football’s more polarizing figures is not something to be celebrated.
In March 2021, the first of twenty accusations that Watson had improper nonviolent sexual contact with massage therapists was filed in court. Due to the accusation’s disturbing details, the Houston Texans dropped their once-beloved quarterback. Since then, Watson has settled with all but one alleged victim in civil court, even as there’s been an additional accusation in recent weeks. (Here’s a full timeline of the Deshaun Watson saga.)
The NFL originally suspended Watson for one season, but after he appealed, arbitrator Sue Robinson gave him a six-game suspension. The NFL then appealed Robinson’s decision, and both sides agreed to an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine. Subsequently, Watson received the largest guaranteed contract of any quarterback in NFL history—$230 million for five years—when he signed to play for the Cleveland Browns. His signing upended the quarterback market and put the Browns’ calloused capitalism on full display. Perhaps ironically, Watson’s first game for his new team will be against his former team, the Houston Texans, on December 4.
The Deshaun Watson story is one that I’ve avoided speaking or writing publicly about since the first allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. Watson’s talent and off-the-field character were reason enough to give an initial pause for jumping to conclusions. Additionally, he was helping to dismantle “black men can’t play quarterback” stereotypes and tropes. It’s not lost on many that these sexual misconduct allegations occurred in a sport that has historically racialized the quarterback position. But he’s also a part of a league that’s currently enduring a bevy of sexual and personal misconduct by coaches, owners (Dan Snyder, Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones), players, and staff. All told, this chapter of Watson’s career is disappointing and filled with oddities.
Wrong is wrong, but grappling with Watson’s egregious and unethical off-the-field behavior is complicated simply because his discipline is as much of an indictment of us—the society of football fans—as it is of him.
Scenarios like Watson’s are evidence that sports are a powerful force in our culture. We take our morality, ethics, and justice cues from how these mortal heroes are held accountable. They’re worthy symbols of courage when they do good in their communities (e.g., hosting camps, feeding the homeless, creating foundations for the economically disadvantaged). Conversely, when they cross the line and commit socially unacceptable acts, we (as the audience) try our damndest to make them an example of what should happen to violators of our norms and values (e.g., Kyrie Irving). But because we enjoy winning, we’re always willing to blur the lines so we can keep enjoying what athletes give us: entertainment.
The NFL has taken a hard stance that Watson’s off-the-field behavior is categorically unacceptable. According to the league’s conduct policy, “[a]ll persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.’” They reason that “[i]llegal or irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL.”
To better understand what’s at stake with the NFL’s decision concerning Deshaun Watson, let’s consider a brief lesson in economics and marketing.
The NFL is a brand, and brands are only as good as their reputation. And in America, especially, reputations are only as good as the products that are produced. Spectators and fans are the primary investors in the NFL’s product. We don’t mind investing (with our time and money) because we know there’s an inelastic demand for American football in the USA, and therefore, it’s a generally safe investment. “Integrity,” as stated in the NFL’s conduct policy, usually makes those investments even more secure. So when a high-profile player like Watson destabilizes the “public confidence,” it becomes detrimental to the NFL’s brand.
Unchecked power is dangerous, and it can erode our confidence in our investments. If one of the best quarterbacks of his time is allowed to objectify or use women simply because he has a skill we deeply admire, then what kind of society are we, and what kind of danger do we potentially place ourselves in? We want even our heroes to come with some restraints. We desire their limitations just as much as their invaluable gifts to wow us.
But here’s why the Deshaun Watson case has more to do with us than it does with him. If fans wanted to take a hard stance on Watson’s behavior and deem it unacceptable, then every stadium would be empty and television would be off on game days this season. At the very least, the Browns’ fans would take such measures. But that’s not what’s happening.
Instead, we all have someone else to point the finger at so we can excuse our demand for football, even in cases of abhorrent behavior like Watson’s. Fans can blame NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for not maintaining a rigid approach to ethics and principles for our heroes. Goodell can blame the arbitrator for suspending Watson for a year. The arbitrator, Sue Robinson, can blame the Cleveland Browns’ front office for giving Watson his deal. And the Browns’ management can blame the fans for demanding a good product (i.e., a competitive football team) on the football field every week.
Whoever is doing the finger-pointing, however, must ultimately point back to themselves.
This process of self-examination is a fundamental Christian principle. Honesty with ourselves is hard. Jesus had to be honest with himself and the Father when facing crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus didn’t want to die by torturous execution. But he didn’t hide from his angst. He was honest with himself and with the Father and stayed true to his mission (Matthew 26:36-46).
We can’t hide from ourselves. But instead of being consistently honest with ourselves, we turn our disappointment and anger outward. We use the world’s travesties as an excuse to not deal with what’s wrong with us despite those very same travesties often being a reflection of our truest selves. We are contributors to the Deshaun Watsons of this world because we, too, are like Deshaun Watson. But that’s just too honest of an admission. So instead, we’ll turn on our televisions to listen to talking heads give their opinions about him. We’ll watch him play, ridicule him, and tweet about justice—and all of it will be a meaningless replacement for substance.
So if you’re a football fan, let’s be honest: we’re going to keep watching NFL football in spite of Deshaun Watson’s indefensible and inexcusable actions. It’s unfortunate because it’s an unnecessary dilemma to give fans. The NFL, the Browns, and all associated parties could have sent a strong and clear message that behavior like Watson’s is intolerable and that there’s no need or desire to accommodate it. But why would they send such a message when we—fans, society, the broader culture—have made it very clear, with our continued investments, that we’re completely uninterested in any such message?