The 40-minute introductory media conference — full of direct questions and defiant answers concerning Deshaun Watson and the 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault against him — was complete. With the words done, the Cleveland Browns and their new quarterback used their actions to make their thoughts clear — namely, that this was business as usual in the NFL.
As the news conference ended, Watson stood behind a table holding a No. 4 Browns jersey in the air. He was flanked by general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski. All three beamed as cameras clicked and local news film-rolled.
This was a scene out of a typical NFL transaction, a celebratory moment of a new player joining a team, a promotional opportunity about the bright future for the Browns.
There was no hint of any circumstances and uncertainty that suggested otherwise. At that moment, Watson was just a three-time Pro Bowler and Cleveland was the lucky franchise that used three first-round draft picks and a $230 million guaranteed contract to land him.
Smile. Just smile for those cameras.
Everything else, though, ranged from uncertain to unseemly. Two Texas grand juries have declined to indict Watson for any criminal conduct for his interactions with those 22 women, but the civil process remains … and Watson stated he has no intention of settling (we’ll see).
Meanwhile, NFL discipline is likely to follow, meaning the Browns have no idea when Watson will actually see the field. And then there is the general scope of the allegations, repugnant even if they aren’t prosecutable.
Watson, however, was clear that he is innocent and, as such, all those massage therapists alleging all those awful things are lying. He repeatedly, and forcefully, maintained he was wrongly accused.
“I never assaulted any women,” Watson said. “I never disrespected any women.”
It was a series of lines he kept going back to, pointing out that he was raised by a single mom and mostly women, therefore such acts weren’t “in my DNA.” He dismissed the flood of allegations, mostly by independent massage therapists who, to use general terms, said he forced himself on them during what they thought were legitimate sessions.
“The things that are off the field now that came up, caught me by surprise because I didn’t do anything that these people are alleging,” Watson said. “… I never assaulted, I never disrespected and never harassed any woman in my life.”
At one point he was asked about seeking counseling, if only to help avoid whatever could have caused all of these plaintiffs.
“The counseling part is hard,” Watson said. “I don’t have a problem. I don’t have an issue and that’s what I have been saying from the beginning.”
To Watson, this is nothing, just a “stain” that he believes he will get past.
As for the Browns, when asked directly if they agreed with their new quarterback’s assessment of his innocence, Berry would only fall back on what he claims was an “extensive” and “thorough” investigation into the cases and Watson himself.
“We feel very confident in Deshaun the person,” Berry said. “We have a lot of faith in him and we feel that as he gets into the community he will have a positive impact.”
Meanwhile, in a later meeting with reporters, Browns ownership – Dee and Jimmy Haslam – said the fact Watson avoided indictment in two separate grand jury proceedings was a significant development.
“I think we got comfortable in the legal process,” Dee Haslam said. “We have to trust in the legal process. And again, learning more and more details about Deshaun as a person we felt good about Deshaun as a person.”
This was a performative dance masquerading as a news conference. Watson wanted to be clear he had done nothing wrong. The Browns wanted to be sympathetic to criticism from fans and outside groups that they took the cases seriously and recognize that this can be disturbing to many.
Yet in the end there were the photos, a visual message that this was about football and the chance for a forlorn franchise to get the kind of megastar who can finally return them to championship contention.
“We think he’s one of the best players at the position in the sport,” Berry said. “He’s in his prime and we think it’s the most important position.”
Said Watson, “You’re getting a strong leader who loves to work, who is going to compete very, very hard. A guy who is going to push everyone to their full potential so we can win a lot of Super Bowls.”
Watson’s on-field play is expected to be everything that has been promised. Before missing the 2021 season due to these allegations, there were plenty of people in the NFL who believed he was every bit as good, or at least very comparable, to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes.
The allegations are the allegations, though. While the vast majority, based on the publicly available information, would be nearly impossible to prosecute, it doesn’t mean Watson’s behavior — presuming all 22 women aren’t lying — was excusable.
Watson says he’s innocent and it’s all made up. Maybe that’s legal posturing, but it’s a tough look for a news conference. He offered zero regrets, apologies, concerns or even the need for self-reflection.
Meanwhile, it’s clear Cleveland believed the complaints would go nowhere criminally and thus could be settled civilly, especially after arming Watson with that nearly quarter-billion dollar deal.
Watson was vowing to continue to fight for his reputation — “My intent is to continue to clear my name as much as possible,” he said — but he’s almost certainly going to try to resolve this quickly. Then it’s onto dealing with the NFL. For Cleveland, it all made sense.
“We feel good about Deshaun as a person,” Berry said. “We felt good about what we learned about the cases … We do think this is a decision that when it is evaluated over the long run will be a-positive for our organization.”
That’s what Cleveland can hope — even if it isn’t as willing to declare Watson’s innocence as Watson was, that he can at least stay out of enough trouble to remain on the field of play.
It’s a big gamble because there is no telling. Maybe Watson can. Maybe he can’t. That Watson is sticking with the concept that he never acted inappropriately and thus doesn’t need to change a thing probably isn’t a great thing for the Browns.
Either way, the words were the words Friday. The photo-op at the end told the story, typical beaming faces as a new jersey is held aloft.
This is Cleveland. And this is Cleveland’s quarterback.