One week ago today, the football world watched and waited for a decision to be made by a Houston grand jury as to whether Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson will be charged with any crimes. Eventually, word emerged that he’ll face no criminal jeopardy. That opened the floodgates for interested teams to pursue Watson.
The land rush has pushed the 22 civil lawsuits far into the background, even as Watson testified in two of them this week. Teams that view Watson as a 10-year answer at the most important position in football seem to be willing to accept the short-term entanglements in order to achieve the long-term objective of having a franchise quarterback.
Should they be? Watson is accused of sexual misconduct not by one person but by 22. If it were only one, it would be easier to gloss over the process that may or may not result in a finding of legal responsibility. At some point, the number of plaintiffs reached a critical mass. That number falls somewhere between one and 22.
For the league, that’s the problem. There are 22 people who accuse Watson of wrongdoing. So what will the league do, and when will the league do it?
On one hand, the league has learned from its past mistakes to wait to make decisions regarding player discipline until the last possible moment. In Watson’s case, that could mean waiting for the 22 civil cases to be resolved.
The Dolphins wanted all of the cases to be settled before it would trade for Watson last year. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the Dolphins believed that a settlement would result in a six-game suspension imposed by the league.
What if Watson doesn’t settle? What if he digs in and fights? What if he ultimately wins? With no criminal charges and 22 verdicts in his favor, Watson would be able to say that he has done nothing wrong. What would the league be suspending him for?
The league could say that the underlying behaviors require intervention. Watson’s lawyer previously admitted that these massage-therapy sessions at times became voluntary sexual encounters. Even if Watson is deemed to have never violated the rights of the massage therapists who have sued him, the league may have serious and justifiable concerns about players lining up massages through social media with a wish or a plan that they will become something more than that.
The question for now is whether the league will move now or wait. As one source with knowledge of the general dynamics that apply in these situations explained things, it will be difficult to ignore and/or dismiss 22 different plaintiffs. There’s a belief that, when Watson finally prepares to play again, he possibly won’t be permitted to do so until the cases are resolved, whether by settlement, dismissal, or verdict.
With the Saints and Falcons in a final tug-of-war for Watson, how much do the teams know or care about what’s coming? Do they fear paid leave? An unpaid suspension? Backlash in their local communities for embracing Watson?
It’s easy to think that they don’t care, not as much as they could. The pursuit of Watson has given rise to a competition. An urgency. And just as it does during football season, the desire to win can cause plenty of things that otherwise would be troubling to be seen as far less troublesome than they should be.