In March 2022, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took the possibility of paid leave (via the Commissioner Exempt list) off the table for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Following recent developments in the civil cases pending against Watson — including the filing of two new lawsuits against him for the first time in more than a year and a New York Times article reporting that Watson received massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period — we posed a very specific question to the league.
Does Goodell’s remark from March still stand?
In response, the league declined comment.
Here’s what Goodell said in March: “If the criminal [cases] had proceeded, that more than likely would have triggered the Commissioner Exempt [list]. I think at this point, the civil case in and of itself would not do that. If there’s a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy, that may trigger something, but that more than likely [would] trigger some kind of discipline in some fashion.”
If that’s still the case, why not say so? The league’s decision not to reiterate that paid leave is off the table arguably puts paid leave back on the radar screen.
Frankly, an argument could be made that paid leave is the right outcome. As PFT previously has reported, some in the league office believe that Watson should not be allowed to play until the 22 (now 24) cases pending against him are resolved. And the Personal Conduct Policy says this about paid leave in the absence of criminal charges: “when an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this Policy by committing any of the conduct identified above, he may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so.”
The circumstances would be 24 pending civil cases, and the evidence would be the information gleaned by the league. If it were one or two cases, that would be one thing. With 24 cases pending (and in theory the possibility of more to be filed), what is the league supposed to do? Determine final discipline before the cases go to trial? Impose discipline for now with the possibility for more later, based on the outcomes of the cases? Do nothing until the litigation ends?
The best move could be to tell Watson that it’s just too much. That it’s too complicated. That it’s too problematic for the league, for his team, for him. That he will be on paid leave until the cases end, at which time the league will decide on a possible suspension without pay.
Putting Watson on paid leave would allow him to devote the 2022 football season to taking the various cases to trial. Also, it could nudge Watson to settle the cases — something he should have done from the moment they were filed.
Yes, it will be very expensive at this point to settle the cases. But that’s the price that literally must be paid for digging in and doubling down instead of accepting the reckoning and resolving these cases from the moment they were filed.