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Understanding the suggested 6-game suspension for Deshaun Watson

Looking deeper into the report from the Honorable Sue Robinson.

Cleveland Browns Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

The reaction to the announcement of a suggested 6-game suspension for Deshaun Watson has brought a lot of public outcry. Articles and comments denouncing the recommended punishment abound on the internet. Many people are justifiably upset and pointing to the inconsistency with which the NFL punishes players for violations which pale in comparison to the allegations against Deshaun Watson. I read the text of the report and have read several reactions from lawyers and legal experts, and I wanted to go through the report to show why the Honorable Sue Robinson made the recommendation she did.

I will try to keep the language as mild as possible, but the subject we are discussing is upsetting. Please use discretion.

I will quote and reference the report a lot in this article, the full text can be found here, courtesy of the New York Times.

I’m going to break down the report into three parts that I feel are necessary to understanding the recommendation.

1 - The NFL is the only real authority in this decision

This is a point Judge Robinson makes clear from the very beginning. She starts her report talking about the collective bargaining agreement, and the language that gives the NFL the right to set their own guidelines and rules. She makes it clear that this process is part of the NFL’s internal actions, that the NFL is the one with the power to set up the rules by which it punishes it’s players, that they also define the terms in those rules, and that they are the ones that defined her role in the process.

When she finds Deshaun Watson guilty of sexual assault, it is the NFL’s definition of sexual assault, and not state or federal law, that she is using. This is important. The NFL is the authority here, there is no other authority that matters in this specific decision. When Judge Robinson determines whether Watson violated NFL regulations, when she suggests punishment, it is all based on the NFL’s rules. It is not her; it is not state law, it is not public opinion that matters. This is an internal NFL matter, and it will be decided by their rules. She goes out of her way to make this point throughout the report.

2 - The findings

Judge Robinson is clear that she is following the NFL’s rules and their definitions, and that the only evidence she is considering is the evidence the NFL presented. The NFL contends that Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy:

1 - Sexual Assault. Defined by the NFL as “unwanted sexual contact with another person.”

2 - Conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.

3 - Conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.

Judge Robinson finds that he violated all three of those provisions. Her rationale for finding that he violated the personal conduct policy can be summed up in a few points.

1 - Watson showed no interest in finding qualified professionals, he never sought that information, but consistently was concerned with making sure the massage was private.

2 - He went out of his way to ensure that sexual contact would happen by the type of massages he requested, and by his actions during the massage.

3 - He did not alter his course of action even as the women he hired consistently refused to work with him again.

4 - The type of massages Watson was seeking frequently involve accidental contact, and yet he insisted that no such contact ever happened, making his denials incredibly improbable and, in the end, not credible.

5 - Watson consistently brought the NFL into the situation by leveraging his status as an NFL quarterback.

Deshaun Watson looked for massages that involved the groin area. He wanted those massages to be private, and specifically from people who didn’t have an established customer base, leveraging his status as an NFL star. He then took actions to increase both the likelihood and amount of sexualized contact that occurred during the massage. Multiple therapists complained to him about his conduct and “none of these therapists accepted Mr. Watson’s invitations to engage in further therapy sessions”.

Judge Robinson thus rules out that the sexual contact was consensual or accidental, that the therapists he hired found the experience to be negative enough to refuse to work with him again, and that his use of his status as an NFL quarterback met the NFL’s standards for undermining the integrity of the NFL.

As Judge Robinson explains each finding, she reiterates that it is the NFL’s terms and definitions that are deciding the case.

3 - Why only 6 games?

Everything before this has painted a pretty nasty picture of Deshaun Watson. No matter how you view this case, the evidence presented to Judge Robinson is pretty damning.

As I’ve made clear, Judge Robinson lets us know throughout the entire report that the NFL is the only authority here. So when Judge Robinson turns to making a judgement on the appropriate punishment, the NFL is the one setting the standard. There is no other standard to look at, the NFL is the only authority in this situation.

The majority of the Disciplinary Determination section of the report is spent going over the history of the NFL enacting punishments through the personal conduct clause. There is a clear focus by the NFL Players Association on the Ray Rice decision in 2014, and the change in the standard of punishment for violent conduct that was enacted then. The NFL revised their policies and set a much stricter standard of punishment for violent offenders.

The key part being that the NFL made it official, they put it into writing and all players had notice of the change. The conduct of Deshaun Watson, while reprehensible, does not fall under the NFL’s violent offender clause. The NFL argued for at least a year based on this case being unprecedented in the category of non-violent sexual offenses. And while Judge Robinson agrees that the offense is unprecedented in the non-violent category, she also found that in the NFL’s history that a 6-game suspension is also unprecedented as a punishment for such an offense.

In the end the crux of the recommendation of a 6-game suspension is the NFL’s lack of punishment for previous non-violent cases, the severity of cases in the past that have warranted a 6-game suspension, and the fact that the NFL has never made an official statement that non-violent offenses would be taken more seriously in the future.

The Conclusion

In my opinion, this report ends up being as much a condemnation of the NFL as it is a condemnation of Deshaun Watson’s behavior. Judge Robinson makes it clear that Watson’s behavior was awful, but that in a court room entirely controlled by the NFL, it is wrong to suddenly change the standard because of how high profile this situation is.

I walked away from the report feeling like Judge Robinson was telling the NFL that if it is going to take mistreatment of women seriously, then it needs to take it seriously all the time, not just when a horrific video surfaces or an incredibly high-profile case occurs. I hope they listen.