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. She still spends her mornings streaming Cleveland sports talk radio. But on Monday, she heard that an arbitrator handed Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson a six-game suspension after 24 women accused him of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
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, who has denied the accusations, has settled 23 of the 24 civil suits against him. Despite these legal woes, the Browns traded for Watson, who played for the Houston Texans, and signed him to a guaranteed $230 million contract extension in March. Critics lambasted the move as callous, and further evidence of a sporting culture that values winning above all.
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.
The NFL was also able to interview 12 of the 24 women who filed suit against Watson, but based the investigative report presented to Robinson on the testimony of four therapists. They each told NFL investigators that Watson insisted on using a towel, rather than the normal sheet, to cover his private areas during massages. They alleged that Watson exposed his erect penis and intentionally contacted the therapists’ hands and arms with it. One of the therapists said that Watson ejaculated during 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. In 2019, Vontaze Burfict of the Oakland Raiders was penalized 12 games for repeatedly violating unnecessary roughness rules and this year, Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons will miss the entire season for placing bets on NFL games while he was away from the team last season, focusing on 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. What I want to scream from the rooftops is the fact that in about 80% of sexual assault cases, there is no physical violence. Physical injury is rare. The majority of the time, in sexual assault cases, the force is by emotional force or coercive force or threats or other forms 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.”
Earlier this year, two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal charges. “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, however, has leeway to hand out punishment, despite the conclusions of criminal courts. 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.
Even worse is the message the NFL is sending. “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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