When it comes to player discipline, the NFL has learned to delay taking action as long as possible. For more than a year, for example, the NFL has taken no action against Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, because it hasn’t had to.
With a pair of grand juries choosing not to criminally charge Watson and with Watson now a member of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL is moving closer to the point at which some sort of decision will be expected, if not required. Below, the potential options are identified.
First, the NFL can suspend Watson now. That would be similar if not identical to the approach the league utilized against Ben Roethlisberger in 2010. At the time of the suspension, he had a pending rape lawsuit in Nevada, and he had avoided criminal charges in Georgia. In the aftermath of the decision by the prosecutor in Georgia to not charge Roethlisberger, the league imposed a six-game suspension. Later, it was reduced to four.
Second, the NFL can wait until the 22 pending civil lawsuits against Watson are resolved. If Watson ultimately prevails in all 22 cases or if he loses in one or more of them or if he settles one or more of them, the specific outcome would (or at least should) impact the league’s decision. (Indeed, if Watson wins all 22 case, it could be argued that he shouldn’t be disciplined at all.)
Third, the NFL could impose a preliminary suspension, with the possibility of further punishment hinging on the outcome of the cases. This would give the NFL a vehicle for both disciplining Watson based on the currently available information and keeping the league’s options open based on evidence that may be developed later and/or possible jury verdicts against Watson.
Fourth — and this is the possible outcome that Watson and the Browns need to take far more seriously than they currently are — the league could eventually place Watson on the Commissioner exempt list (i.e., paid leave) until the 22 civil cases are resolved, with an unpaid suspension coming thereafter. We’ve heard that this is a possibility. Others have, too. The best way to avoid this outcome would be to settle the cases now.
I made that argument last Friday, after the Browns emerged as the winner of the four-way tug-of-war for Watson. Settle the cases now.
Browns fans deserve it. More specifically, Browns fans don’t deserve to have the cloud that has hovered over Houston to migrate over Cleveland.
The Browns seem to be assuming short-term pain in the name of long-term gain. But that doesn’t mean the short-term pain should hurt more than necessary. If the cases are properly resolved, Watson arrives with a clean slate, and Browns fans don’t have the burden of wondering what will happen if/when the case go to trial. They can also conclude that Watson has had a proper reckoning.
So far, the signals from Watson’s camp point to fighting all of the cases and trying to win them. Once they realize that the league may decide to keep him from playing until the legal fight has ended, Watson’s camp may decide to take a different approach. They should.