It’s been nearly three months since the first of 22 lawsuits was filed against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson alleging misconduct during massage therapy sessions. The NFL has had a full and fair chance to conduct a preliminary investigation. Soon, the NFL should decide whether Watson will be placed on paid leave pending the resolution of those cases.
As explained a few weeks back, the league has broad discretion to decide whether to utilize the Commissioner Exempt list for Watson, even in the absence of formal criminal charges. If the investigation causes Roger Goodell “to believe” that Watson “may have violated” the Personal Conduct Policy by engaging in a “felony offense,” a “crime of violence,” or a “sexual assault by force,” Goodell can place Watson on paid leave.
Whether Goodell already has or hasn’t come to that conclusion, it’s only fair that Goodell come to some conclusion before training camp starts. Goodell will have had more than four months to make a decision as to whether Watson “may have violated” the policy in one of the various ways that justify placement on paid leave. For the Texans and Watson, it shouldn’t be a guessing game when the time comes for Watson to show up for training camp.
If Watson believes he’ll be placed on paid leave, he’ll definitely report for training camp. That would result in Watson receiving his full $10 million salary for 2021. If the Texans believe Watson will be placed on paid leave, the Texans possibly will trade him for whatever they can get, shifting the $10 million obligation to his new team.
Conversely, if the Texans and Watson know he won’t be placed on paid leave, the Texans could trade Watson for considerably more, since his new team (possibly the Broncos, Dolphins, or Eagles) would know that he’ll be playing this season.
The league still could suspend Watson without pay for his behavior, but the league would be more likely to wait for the final resolution of the civil cases before reaching a final decision. Absent a settlement, that won’t happen until 2022.
In 2019, the league played coy with teams interested in signing receiver Antonio Brown on the question of whether he’d be placed on paid leave based on the filing of a lawsuit alleging that he committed sexual assault and rape, along with an allegation that he retaliated against another person who had made allegations about Brown to SI.com. The league’s unwillingness to commit one way or the other operated as a de facto unpaid suspension, with Brown missing 14 games (and 14 game checks) as teams hesitated to sign him for fear of paying him to not play.
That was unfair to Brown. It would be unfair to the Texans, to Watson, and to any team that wants to trade for him to force a guessing game here. Watson is getting $10 million this year from someone, whether he’s on paid leave or not. Before the Texans can make the best decision for the franchise before camp (as G.M. Nick Caserio said they will do on Monday), the Texans need to know the answer to the simple question of whether, based on whatever the Commissioner has learned since mid-March, Watson will or won’t land on the Commissioner Exempt list.
It’s a complicated situation. There are nuances. There are sharply disputed questions of fact. And maybe the league will decide from a P.R. standpoint that the sheer number of allegations mandates paid leave — even if none on them standing alone would require the league to stray from the notion that Watson is entitled to the presumption that he’s innocent until proven guilty.
Whatever the league decides, the league owes it to the Texans, Watson, and his potential next team to make that decision by late July. Frankly, there should be no reason not to make a decision right now.