Will the Deshaun Watson settlement change how the NFL handles sexual misconduct accusations?
Over a decade ago, Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in Georgia – a case that sent shudders through the NFL world.
Roethlisberger, the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, was beloved by fans – having led the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships.
Though Roethlisberger was never charged with any crimes, he was given a six-game suspension by the league for violating its personal conduct policy. (Roethlisberger’s lawyer denied the sexual assault allegation, and the quarterback apologized in a statement to the team and fans for letting them down). Later, the suspension was reduced to four games for good behavior.
“You have told me and the Steelers that you are committed to making better decisions,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to Roethlisberger at the time. “Your actions over the past several months have been consistent with that promise and you must continue to honor that commitment.”
Roethlisberger’s was the first case of alleged violence against women that sports reporter Melissa Jacobs, now managing editor of The Football Girl and a contributor to The Guardian, remembers hearing about as a reporter covering the league. The NFL, she said, seemed completely incompetent at the time. When the league reduced Roethlisberger’s suspension, she was stunned.
“The NFL had no blueprint in place for how to handle this,” Jacobs told CNN.
Once again, the league is under scrutiny for its handling of sexual misconduct accusations. This time, that scrutiny is centered on Deshaun Watson.
Watson, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, has faced allegations from more than two dozen women who say the football star sexually harassed or assaulted them during private massage appointments during his time with the Houston Texans. Twenty-four women filed civil lawsuits against Watson. Twenty-three of those civil suits have been settled confidentially; two grand juries in Texas declined to charge Watson criminally.
Initially, Watson, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, was hit with a six-game suspension, just like Roethlisberger. But unlike in the past, Goodell and the NFL pushed for more – appealing the decision and seeking a full-season suspension.
Last week, the NFL and the NFL Players Association reached a settlement: Watson received an 11-game suspension and was fined $5 million. It’s the NFL’s harshest punishment for someone accused of sexual assault – in the past, the NFL has issued longer suspensions for violations including alleged drug use and gambling.
The situation is still thorny. There are, for example, questions surrounding what the Texans knew about Watson’s massage sessions.
And under his latest contract with the Browns, Watson’s current team, he will not lose much of his guaranteed money, according to ESPN. If the six-game suspension had held, he would have only lost $345,000. (Watson’s contract is one of the richest deals in NFL history, at five years with $230 million guaranteed).
But just days after the league announced Watson’s updated suspension and fine, a new civil lawsuit against a newly drafted NFL player has come to light.
Thus, questions from critics still linger: Is Watson’s penalty enough?
Domestic violence cases and accusations of sexual misconduct in football aren’t limited to the professional level – colleges and universities have a history of such accusations as well.
In 1974, an 18-year-old girl accused six football players at the University of Notre Dame of gang-raping her. Those players were suspended for a year, but she alleged that up to 20 players were aware of the incident, with some even watching as it happened. Charges were filed, then dropped according to published reports; the university suspended the six students accused of being involved for a year.
Fifteen years later, at the University of Oklahoma, two players were convicted of raping a 20-year-old woman in a dorm room. The incident was one of many controversies that prompted the resignation of coach Barry Switzer (who, five years later, took a head coaching job with the Dallas Cowboys).
Nigel Clay, one of the Oklahoma players convicted, spoke about the incident in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1992. He, and many other players on campus, felt almost bulletproof, he said according to the Times report.
“We felt like we were above the law,” Clay said. “Like OU would protect us from anything.”
That sentiment, to some degree, remains a concern. Between 2010 and 2015, officials at Baylor University failed to report sexual assault claims against football players, creating what the NCAA called in a 2021 report a “campus-wide culture of sexual violence.” Still, the NCAA did not penalize the university for its handling of sexual assault claims, stating in its report that Baylor did not actually violate NCAA legislation. (In a responding statement, the university said it “sincerely regret(s) the actions of a few individuals that caused harm to so many.”)
And on Thursday, a civil lawsuit was filed against Matt Araiza, a punter recently drafted by the Buffalo Bills, and two of his former college teammates for allegedly gang-raping a 17-year-old girl in 2021 while attending San Diego State University.
“I’m disappointed that she filed this civil lawsuit against my client because he didn’t rape her, he never used any force against her, she was not visibly intoxicated, he did not hand her a drink with anything in it,” Kerry Armstrong, Araiza’s lawyer, told CNN on a call.
The university is investigating the matter, SDSU officials said in a statement, as is the San Diego Police Department. Both the Bills and the NFL stated they are aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment due to the ongoing investigation. No criminal charges have been filed.
Deborah Epstein is the co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic, and she previously served on the NFL Players Association’s commission on domestic violence. She resigned from the commission in 2018, claiming the NFLPA wasn’t actually committed to preventing violence against women. (The NFLPA, in response, said it had implemented “many of the commission’s recommendations” and “will continue to provide resources and services” to members.)
Many athletes are identified as stars relatively young, Epstein explained, even before they go to college. People treat them like gods who don’t have to follow the rules, she said. And that can be detrimental.
“For someone that young, it’s incredibly hard to avoid internalizing those messages and developing into a person that acts impulsively (and) doesn’t really have to think through the consequences of his actions,” Epstein said. “And that pattern, that kind of life, is one that can easily lead to violence against women, feeling like everything’s your property.”
Cases of athletes accused of committing violence against women aren’t limited to football – they are found across sports in boxing, basketball, and soccer, among others. In April, Major League Baseball suspended Trevor Bauer of the Los Angeles Dodgers for two years following allegations of sexual assault, which he has denied. (Bauer will not face criminal charges, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said.)
And in 2015 while with the Cincinnati Reds, Aroldis Chapman was suspended for 30 games out of the 162-game season, after his girlfriend accused him of choking and pushing her, before firing his gun multiple times in the garage. His girlfriend called 911 from the bushes near his home, according to a police report.
Chapman wasn’t charged for the incident and claimed he never hurt his girlfriend – though he apologized for his use of a gun.
Two years later, when Chapman signed with the New York Yankees, owner Hal Steinbrenner defended the move in spite of the allegations.
“Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?” Steinbrenner said at the time. “That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life.”
The NFL does now have policies in place to punish those accused of sexual misconduct or violence against women, following an investigation. But the data shows those policies haven’t always been strictly followed.
Jacquelyn Wiersma-Mosley, a professor at the University of Arkansas, completed an empirical investigation into violence against women in the NFL, pulling data from a public list of the 176 known players who violated any league policy between 2010 and 2019.
Only 10% of victims actually report incidents of domestic violence, Wiersma-Mosley said, so the data may not reflect the actual scope of the issue. Still, offenses pertaining to allegations of violence against women received an average of a four-game suspension – even though NFL policy states the minimum as six.
And the majority of infractions were for general violent behaviors, things like assault and battery or allegations of such, which Wiersma-Mosley found received an average suspension time of just two games – suggesting that the league doesn’t only have an issue with violence against women, but violence in general.
Brian McCarthy, a spokesperson for the NFL, disagreed with that suggestion, telling CNN that less than 1% of players are involved in a matter that leads to an arrest, and that the league works to hold those who violate NFL policies accountable even when there are no legal ramifications.
Still, the narrow view of masculinity in football, and in other sports, can breed misogyny and sexism, Wiersma-Mosley said, referencing points made by former NFL quarterback Don McPherson. Until that issue is addressed, the problem of domestic violence will fester, Wiersma-Mosley believes.
“The silence by players and the league allow violence to continue, particularly in high risk all-male groups where group loyalty is engrained,” she said. “Instead the league should empower players to speak out as active bystanders and allies in the prevention of violence.”
It bears noting that the NFL has made some improvements since Roethlisberger or, slightly more recently, Ray Rice. Before, in the absence of a criminal conviction, the NFL would frequently claim it could not investigate allegations of a player’s violence against women, Epstein said. In the Watson case, though, it hired investigators who wrote a 200-page report, as well as a retired federal judge to make a ruling. The NFL has also investigated other incidents of alleged domestic violence in recent years, including allegations against Ezekiel Elliott in 2017. Though he was never arrested or charged, the league suspended Elliott for six games. (Elliott had previously denied the accusations and said he strongly disagreed with his suspension.)
In Watson’s case, the NFL has also set his $5 million fine, plus an extra $1 million each from both the league and the Browns, to go toward nonprofit organizations working to prevent sexual assault, support survivors and educate youth on healthy relationships.
But in Epstein’s view, the league has yet to discover how to actually penalize claims of misconduct or violence against women in a way that is both a deterrent and an act of justice.
Epstein used Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons as an example. After placing three multi-legged parlay bets on NFL games in 2021 while injured, Ridley has been suspended at least for the entire 2022 season.
“It’s really hard to argue that that’s the same level as sexual assault,” Epstein said.
In response, Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told CNN the league relies on experts and advisers whenever there is a case of domestic or sexual violence. Those experts, she said, have advised the league to take a “multifaceted, comprehensive approach” to addressing these cases, rather than relying solely on punishment.
“Discipline alone – so just the number of games one gets suspended – is not enough to curb behavior or deter future action,” Isaacson said.
Still, no one wants to think about assault while the game is happening, Jacobs said. Fans want an escape, owners want a profit.
“The marketing for the NFL is just phenomenal,” she said. “They know they have millions of suckers who are just into their product and maybe care about an issue on Tuesday or Wednesday, but once the games start on Sunday that’s not what fans are thinking about.”
Isaacson said the NFL has “done a lot of education for fans,” including several public service campaigns about domestic violence and airing Super Bowl ads from domestic violence organizations.
To actually address domestic violence and sexual misconduct, the NFL should also focus on promoting anti-violence messages early on, Epstein said, while athletes are still in elementary and middle school. By the time players get to the NFL, it might actually be too late, she said.
The NFL did create Character Playbook in 2014 – the same year Rice was suspended indefinitely from the league – an educational program for middle schoolers focused on building healthy relationships. The program is accessible to any middle school that wants it, Isaacson said, and is currently in more than 12,000 schools.
The league also began the InSideOut Initiative, which works with coaches to reduce the “win at all costs mentality” in sports, Isaacson said.
But there also need to be punitive damages, Epstein said. The message athletes receive, she argued, is that they can commit violence against women without significant reprimand.
In the settlement announcement, Goodell claimed Watson is “committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL.”
Although Watson apologized for “any pain this situation has caused” in a statement, he also told the media last week that he plans to “continue to stand on my innocence.”
“Just because settlements and things like that happen, doesn’t mean that person is guilty for anything,” Watson said.
To Epstein, if Watson can’t even admit to the sexual assaults that a judge brought on by the NFL and the NFLPA determined he more likely than not committed, how can the NFL’s evaluation and treatment plan have any impact?
“Professional football cannot realistically address its violence against women problem with empty claims that it will require players to reflect and improve their behavior, while the players persist in asserting blanket denials of wrongdoing,” she said.
The league has shown it may be more prepared to handle accusations of violence against women than it was in the past. And yet the same question remains: Will it make a difference?