NFL

Would you want Deshaun Watson on your team?

Let’s start with facts.

Deshaun Watson is a national championship-winning, first-round draft pick and the NFL’s passing leader in 2020. Deshaun Watson is, by numbers and potential, one of the league’s finest quarterbacks. Deshaun Watson also stands accused of sexual assault by 22 different women. Deshaun Watson faces civil lawsuits filed by nearly two dozen masseuses for a range of alleged sexual assault offenses, from failing to cover his genitals to forcing oral sex.

You could reply to all of those facts with a strident “YEAH, BUT…”, so let’s widen the lens a bit and bring in some more information. Two weeks ago, a Harris County grand jury in Texas declined to indict Watson on nine counts of criminal sexual assault. That, in turn, set off a feeding frenzy among NFL teams, with at least four — Cleveland, Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina — making highly public appeals for Watson’s services. Cleveland won the fight by offering Houston an array of draft picks and Watson the most guaranteed money and years in NFL history.

Now, here’s where we step from the firm ground of facts into the shifting sands of personal perspective.

There are those who say that because Watson wasn’t criminally charged, he’s out from under the darkest of clouds, and it’s time to start considering his fantasy value and his impact on Cleveland’s Super Bowl odds. There are also those who point out that a failure to indict is as much a political decision as a legal one, since sex crimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Finally, and most important, there are those who point out that Watson still faces the formal accusations of 22 different women … women who filed these suits knowing the odds were against them and that Watson’s attorneys would drag their personal lives under a microscope.

Given that the NFL has levied punishment at players long before the legal system has had its final say, it’s tough to stomach the way that multiple teams salivated over Watson with those 22 different accusations still looming over his head. Yes, everyone is entitled to a second chance in America, and once a debt is paid to society, it’s paid … but Watson hasn’t even had his day in civil court, much less resolved those 22 different accusations against him.

The problem with making any sweeping, easy hot-take statement on how the Watson matter should go is that the NFL has never dealt with anything like this before: a highly coveted player at the game’s most crucial position facing nearly two dozen different accusations. Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and many others disciplined by the NFL weren’t nearly so enticing to needy teams willing to rationalize their way through a controversial signing.

The NFL could have headed off so much of this mess by taking a stronger, more proactive stand on Watson in the first place. Establish a mandatory suspension, establish an additional suspension if he’s found guilty, establish literally anything to show that the league’s claims of caring about character in general and its female fans in particular aren’t just PR blather. Instead, the NFL has slowly investigated the year-old matter in a manner that has allowed this to fester, and now a whole lot of organizations look mercenary, scheming and terrible … or just revealed their true colors, depending on your perspective.

“Our organization did a tremendous amount of background on Deshaun,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said in a statement. “It was important for us to meet with Deshaun in person as part of our team’s evaluation process, we had a candid conversation regarding his approach to coming into our organization and community.”

“We have done extensive investigative, legal and reference work over the past several months to provide us with the appropriate information needed to make an informed decision about pursuing him and moving forward with him as our quarterback,” Browns general manager Andrew Berry said in another statement.

Left unsaid is whether the Browns consulted any of the 22 women who have leveled accusations against Watson.

“The Browns organization did not reach out to me,” Tony Buzbee, attorney for the 22 women accusing Watson, told ESPN. “I didn’t expect them to do so, and can understand why they didn’t. But, knowing what I know, they probably should have.”

Fans in the 21st century make moral compromises when cheering for their team. Ownership’s actions, specific players’ police records, the organization’s affiliation with certain political figures or organizations, fandom is now a litmus test across the board of how much you’re willing to take, and how much you’re willing to ignore, to cheer for a team that may not share your exact values.

Granted, there has always been an implicit disconnect between teams and fans, but for the most part, ignorance was bliss. You might not have been aware of the way your favorite team worked over the tax code to wring a new stadium out of your town, or the fact that your favorite athlete voted for a different presidential candidate than you. But we’re in an era of transparency now — or, at least, exposure — and what was once private is now very much in the open.

Watson, with 22 different accusers staring him down, is the most extreme example of this disconnect imaginable, a star at the top of his profession, at the apex of his skills, getting a record-setting deal despite the monumental legal challenges facing him.

Cleveland and many of its fans have made the calculation that the on-field benefit of Watson is worth the moral cost.

How about you? Knowing what you know right this moment, would you want Deshaun Watson on your team?

Deshaun Watson’s is an unprecedented situation for the NFL. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.




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