Assault or Bad Optics: Does the NFL Actually Care About Deshaun Watson’s Victims?


Photo Courtesy of CNN

26-year-old Clevland Browns quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. Additionally, the former first-round pick is the subject of an NFL investigation that aims to determine if he violated any portion of the league’s Personal Conduct Policy.  

The first 2 allegations of assault or attempted assault stem from massage therapy sessions in which he inappropriately touched two of the female therapists. Ashley Solis, a 35-year-old licensed masseuse, was the first woman who filed a lawsuit against Watson. In a Sports Illustrated interview she said:

Unfortunately, I didn’t speak up as quickly as I would like to have, maybe the way that everyone thinks that they’re going to respond when something like that happens. But with somebody who does have a status and could literally just take your career out, when I’m just getting started and I don’t have any certifications or degree in anything else—where does that leave me? I just started crying. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I felt disgusted. He looked disgusting. I wanted to go shower and scrub myself until I bled. I just wanted him gone.

Lauren Baxley, a 35-year-old licensed masseuse was the second woman to identify herself and in a Sports Illustrated interview described her experience with Watson, saying “I knew he could destroy my reputation as a professional massage therapist if he somehow turned it around that I had initiated some sort of sexual contact. I was terrified. Not just for my career, not just for my license getting revoked, but also for my personal relationship with my partner. … There were layers and layers to what was happening in my mind, but physically, I felt like I was chained to that table.” 

However, Watson responded on Twitter on March 16, 2021, claiming that he has “never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect. The plaintiff’s lawyer claims that this isn’t about money, but before filing the suit he made a baseless six-figure settlement demand, which I quickly rejected. Unlike him, this isn’t about the money for me- it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.” Watson openly expressed his feeling stating, “I do not have any regrets. Like I said before, the things that are off the field right now that came up caught me by surprise because I never did anything that these people are alleging. I know a lot of people say that I took the year off – I used that to be able to clear my name in the previous two weeks, and just continued to fight that. I just continue to work and become a better person, a better player, and just a better son, like my mom, has always taught me.”

Women have claimed that Watson unpromptedly kissed and inappropriately groped and touched them without consent. These suits and allegations have prompted lucrative brands such as Nike, Reliant Energy, Beats by Dre, and H-E-B, a Texas-based supermarket, to terminate their professional relationships with the serial assaulter. 

Nike went so far as to state, “We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson. We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”   

As of March 11, 2022, a grand jury in Haris County decided to not indict Watson for criminal charges related to the harassment and sexual assault allegations, thus ending any criminal procedures. 

South of Houston, Texas, in Brazoria County, Watson was deemed not guilty of any charges against him, only thirteen days later. Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin stated “We are delighted that the grand jury has looked at the matter thoroughly and reached the same conclusion we did. Deshaun Watson did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses…It is time to let Deshaun move on.” Watson is now cleared of any criminal charges relating to sexual assault, however, this does not exonerate him from the 22 active civil suitcases. Moreover, he does not plan to settle or take any responsibility for any action he had with the masseuse. 

The question still remains if the NFL will suspend Watson, despite his criminal vindication. According to the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, players do not have to be criminally charged to warrant a suspension. Based on previous Policy infractions by other players, it seems a lengthy suspension is inevitable. This decision will likely not be publicized until 2023, which prompts an unfortunate consequence. Now, the majority of the public is more focused on Watson’s football career with the Browns than on the 22 women who have accused him of sexual assault. 

Although the National Football League employs elite athletes, the same cannot be said about the investigative team responsible for researching DeShaun Watson. 

For example, Ashly Solis participated in a Zoom meeting with the NFL as a first step in the investigation. Despite the fact this was her first interview with a media outlet, the interviewer jumped to the wildly inappropriate and unacceptable question “what were you wearing?” They failed to ask her typical questions like, “Where were you?”, “What were you doing?” or “What time was it?” The order in which Solis was questioned pointed to a preliminary and inherent bias against her. She was not the subject of a typical investigation.  Rather, she was another woman whose complaints needed to be quieted for the sake of the league, and more importantly, revenue. Solis goes on to state, “this woman asked me what I was wearing, which honestly really pissed me off…she explained that that’s something that she has to ask—which I don’t believe at all.” Lisa Friel and Jennifer Gaffney are the two running the NFL’s personal conduct investigation. Lauren Baxley, one of the 22 suing Watson, received the same question about her attire. She described the interviewer’s attitude as “patronizing” and “victim-blaming”; two hackneyed adjectives used to describe the NFL. Baxley states that Watson inappropriately touched her and exposed himself during his massage session. At that moment, Baxley froze out of fear and did not immediately end the session. Both interviewers were confused by her response and were not considerate enough to understand why she did not end the session at that moment. However, according to the National Library of Medicine, your body’s Fight-Flight-Freeze response functions as a result of coping and defense mechanisms when confronted with physiological fears. Although the NFL has been quick to avoid nuanced medical data in the past, Baxley’s response was completely normal and justified. Moreover, the investigators’ confusion points to being poorly educated on the matter and a broader systemic problem in the NFL’s investigative team. This is particularly troubling because incidents of sexual assault amongst NFL players are frequent, and this is not even the first time the league has probed a star quarterback about sexual misconduct. For example, Derrius Guice, a running back for the Washington Commanders, was accused of assault and battery. Lastly, Gaffney and Friel did not inquire about the events of her interaction with Watson. Rather, they scrutinized her version of the event and undermined her voice as a victim in the process. Once again, this is typical of the National Football League; however, the staggering number of victims makes Watson’s situation distinct as well.

The league is now confronted with a decision. It could give Watson a lengthy suspension and attempt, albeit insufficiently, to help his victims feel heard. Or, as I suspect, it could suspend Watson for half the season or less in an attempt to preserve optics and boost profit. Most depressingly, whatever suspension Watson does incur is not the result of the league’s firm adherence to its Conduct Policy. It is an attempt to quell public unrest and avoid fan disengagement. Despite all this, Brown’s Super Bowl odds according to DraftKings SportsBook are +1700. Meaning, that a $10.00 bet now would lead to a $180.00 payout in February, so I suspect those odds will keep engagement high regardless of the possible crime committed.