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  • Writer's pictureVillanova Sports Law Blog

The Moral and Legal Considerations of the Deshaun Watson Case

Contributing Writers: Jacqueline Borrelli, Samantha Newman, and Rachel Sweeney

On September 28, 2022, Villanova Law School Professors Shea Rhodes and Andrew Brandt held a forum discussing all the facets surrounding Cleveland Browns quarterback, Deshaun Watson: his pattern of predatory behavior, the NFL discipline system and his suspension through settlement with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and on impact of society as a whole.

To begin the discussion, Professor Brandt detailed the mechanics of the NFL discipline system and the negotiated suspension. Accordingly, “the civil suits alleged that Watson engaged in a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to provide personal services, coercing them to touch him in a sexual manner, exposing himself to women he had hired for massages, or moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis.” The incidents occurred between March of 2020 through March of 2021. Furthermore, an investigation revealed that Watson had booked massage –appointments –mostly through Instagram-- with at least 66 women.

Professor Brandt explained how Watson first received a six-game suspension, which was appealed by the NFL to a league-designated appeal office. However, this appeal office never actually ruled on the case because the NFL and NFLPA reached a negotiated settlement. The terms of this settlement stated that Watson would serve – as he is now doing – an 11-game suspension. Thus, Watson is eligible for reinstatement on November 28, which is the day after the Browns’ 11th game. The earliest Watson can play for the Browns is Week 13 of the NFL season, on December 4, in a game against his former team in Houston.

Professor Rhodes explained that the reality of power dynamics in society is essential in understanding the severity of Watson’s conduct. There are two key elements integral to understanding the silence of his victims and the exploitive nature of his actions.

First, rape and sexual assault have long been ignored and minimized in American culture. Both are vastly unreported crimes; a survey of victims of unreported crimes of sexual violence demonstrated reasonable fears for their silence including fear of retaliation or a belief that the police would or could not help. Even if a victim does choose to report the crime, they are often not believed and, at worst, villainized for their victimization. This is particularly true when the perpetrator is someone in a position of power and authority, such as Watson. Even when they are believed, their trauma and experiences may be downplayed.

In the Watson case, the jointly selected disciplinary officer, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson ruled that while Watson did commit sexual assault, it was “non-violent.” Professor Rhodes explained that the focus on a lack of physical violence in this ruling is a major issue. Violence and trauma are not contingent on the presence of a bruise, a cut, or a broken bone. Judge Robinson’s decision ignores the full picture of Watson’s sexual assault and the victims’ mental and emotional trauma.

Second, it is essential to understand the relevant sexual harassment and assault, rape, and commercial sexual exploitation laws, the stereotypes and myths surrounding women in the massage business, and the reality of Watson’s actions. Under Texas law, Professor Rhodes explained that Watson’s conduct falls under the legal definition of commercial sexual exploitation. Media sources that argue that these victims chose to have sex with Watson are misleading and incorrect. There is a harmful and unfortunately common fallacy that massage therapists are part of the sex trade. The myth that all massage therapists give “happy endings” is not only categorically false, but it also puts women who are trying to do their jobs at risk of sexual harassment and assault.

Professor Rhodes then discussed that the reality of the women Watson preyed upon. He sought out multiple women who were vulnerable because they were un-licensed or still in school and always leveraged his position as a player. This abuse of privilege and power is common both in cases of sexual assault and within the commercial sex trade. The spectrum of choice present in the commercial sex trade is vastly misrepresented by media and in society. Most individuals are not engaging in free enthusiastic consent when selling sex; rather, coercive circumstances or third-party influences removes power, choice, and agency. Most people selling sex are doing so from a position of vulnerability; they are women and girls of color, members of LGBTQ+ community, undocumented immigrants, people struggling with substance use disorder, or other vulnerable populations. Although none of these women were offering sex in this case, Watson exploited similar vulnerabilities in seeking out his victims and benefited from harmful stereotypes to continue his pattern of predatory behavior.

Lastly, Professors Rhodes and Brandt discussed their disappointment with the NFL investigation. The investigation was not trauma-informed, blamed the victims, and spent little to no time examining the alleged conduct. NFL investigators, they surmised, must do better. Professor Rhodes further applauded the strength of survivors in this case. One survivor, who bravely came forward, stated, “No matter how scary, big or powerful someone may seem. They are just humans. And like all humans, we all have the right to have our voices heard."

Thank you to both Professors Rhodes and Brandt, for highlighting the moral and legal consequences of Watson’s actions, the NFL’s poor investigatory response, the need for trauma-informed judges and attorneys, and the strength and bravery of survivors.

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