Within the world of sports, I suggest that the Deshaun Watson matter is the one that most demands a bit of disambiguation now. It has all the elements we have come to associate with a sports mystery:
- The center of the situation has star power, and the sport is one that garners lots of attention with or without this particular mystery.
- There is plenty of apparent evidence – on both sides of the conundrum in this particular case – and it has come out in dribs and drabs.
- Both sides have chosen to “try the case in the media”.
- There is an element of iniquity and or indecency at the core of the matter.
Early on, I decided to stand by for the tug of war here to play itself out before weighing in. The reason is not that I have a particular outcome for this mess in mind that I would prefer above all others; the reason is that until some outside and objective evidence is produced, the two sides will be locked into a series of declarations that mimic the old Miller Lite ads:
- Tastes great! Less Filling! Tastes great!! Less Filling!!! …
Recently, the Houston Police Department opened an investigation because someone came forward with a criminal complaint. Normally, that is not a good thing; but in this case, it opens the possibility of discovering “outside and objective evidence”. Moreover, at least one – and possibly two – judges have ruled that the identities of the civil litigants here must be identified to the defense lawyers at a minimum. So, there is some movement here although I doubt this matter is any closer to “resolution” than Houston is to the moon.
What strikes me this morning is that the NFL has done nothing and said nothing about this mess except that the league is “deeply disturbed” by the allegations made here. Let me channel Derrick Coleman here and say:
With that as its only pronouncement on the matter, it is not easy to tell if the NFL is deeply disturbed by the nature of the allegations or if it is deeply disturbed that the story has legs and has not just dried up and blown away. In modern political parlance, the NFL’s behavior here has a “bad optic”.
I recognize that the NFL has to walk a tightrope here; it cannot take sides in the matter nor can there be a general perception that the league has taken sides. In the real world, the NFL must wait – just like all of us must wait – for this Shakespearean drama to come to its end at which point all of us will know if this is a comedy or a tragedy. But what might – or even should – the NFL do now to alter that “bad optic” without taking sides?
The NFL has a thing it calls the Commissioner’s Exempt List. A player on that list may not participate in any team activities – including meetings – but that player is paid in full accordance with his contract while he resides on the list and the “problem” that got him there is resolved. In normal life, this is called paid administrative leave. When the matter is finally resolved, the player is either punished by the league or reinstated with his teammates having suffered no damage to his bank account. The league has never imposed this status on a player during the off-season; perhaps the reason is that there are no team activities ongoing now that the Exempt List would bar him from. I do not know why The Commish has chosen not to use his own Exempt List, but I think the time has come for him to do so.
Before I go any further, let me be sure to state:
- I am not prejudging the outcome of this matter in any way. That determination will be made for me – and for the NFL – by outside entities.
To those who say that putting Deshaun Watson on the list now only protects him financially in this matter but the act of putting him on the list damages his reputation, I say Buncombe! [Hat tip to H. L. Mencken there!] Deshaun Watson’s image and reputation are tarred for life beyond any noticeable augmentation of that damage that might be done by the Commissioner’s Exempt List. The NFL has cover for such an action about now and should use that cover while it still has currency:
- Nike has “suspended” its endorsement deal with Deshaun Watson.
- Beats by Dré has ended its “partnership” with Deshaun Watson.
- Reliant Energy “suspended” its relationship with Deshaun Watson.
- H B E Groceries “will not renew” an endorsement contract that expired in December 2020.
Those four business entities – and the NFL is indeed a business entity – have decided that the best thing for them to do is to take a position where they are not perceived to be in one corner or the other here; they are withholding endorsement money from Watson awaiting the final outcome here. The NFL can and should do the same thing. In fact, the NFL’s current posture looks pretty silly if you juxtapose two situations:
- The NFL – considering voluminous yet contradictory evidence – in a matter involving allegations of disgusting personal behavior by one of its star QBs has decided to be “deeply disturbed” and then has gone about its business.
- The NFL – considering poorly collected and tenuously analyzed evidence – in a matter involving the inflation level(s) of footballs involving one of its star QBs decided to suspend him without pay for 4 games.
At least in my mind, the NFL’s “bad optic” just got worse…
The more serious question, I believe, now is not what the NFL can or should do; the question now is:
- What can or will the Houston Texans do?
Watson wanted to be traded; the Texans say they have no interest in trading him; there is an outcome here whereby it would be impossible for him to play for the Texans or anyone else should he be convicted of criminal charges and sent to prison. Are there teams out there willing to trade for him and his obvious QB skills in the current situation? Should the Texans take any phone calls that come in?
To me, the NFL’s choice here is obvious. Put Watson in the Commissioner’s Exempt List; seize the moral high ground; sit back and let others do the grunt work to make your final decision for you.
To me, the Texans’ choice(s) are far less obvious – – and therefore far more interesting.
Finally, the NFL has tried over the past several years to convince folks that they “value women”. Well, here is a situation where the NFL can demonstrate some leadership where the issue of “valuing women” is interwoven throughout the issue. That recalls a distinction made by one of my former supervisors that seems pertinent here:
“Managers do things right.
“Leaders do the right thing.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………