In last week’s column, I wrote about the success of the Houston Texans with CJ Stroud at quarterback, and I stated that the Texans had ‘finally’ found their franchise quarterback. This ignored a wrinkle in the Texans’ history — the promise of 2017 draft pick Deshaun Watson during his four seasons in Houston.
In case you need a refresher, it wasn’t his play that ultimately led to Watson’s elite start faltering with the Texans. Watson demanded a trade following the 2020 season due to front-office disagreements with the Texans, but this was quickly overshadowed by a litany of sexual assault allegations in 2021. Ultimately, 26 different female massage therapists accused Watson of inappropriate exposure and sexual coercion, resulting in a record $5 million fine by the NFL and an 11-week suspension. After discipline was issued, Watson was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2022, where he’s played only 12 games as a result of that suspension and injury issues.
The Deshaun Watson story leaves the NFL world to confront an issue that society writ large has faced around alleged perpetrators like him in recent years: how (if at all) should they be allowed to re-enter into the public eye? To be sure, there’s been no consensus on the answer to this question in regards to Watson, even among Browns fans. But it’s a question that becomes more important as the media cycle moves on from the initial scandal.
The Watson story was complicated after news this week that he will sit out the rest of the season due to shoulder surgery. This means Watson will have played 12 total games in three seasons since 2020 and will largely fall out of prominent NFL narratives. However, due to his enormous contract, it’s unlikely that the Browns will move on from him as starter, especially because even average quarterback play on the talented Browns’ roster could make them serious contenders.
As a result, Watson’s injury only postpones the question of how he should be treated in the public eye, an issue NFL analyst Mina Kimes observed earlier this season. “Something that kind of occurred to me is how am I going to talk about this in my capacity as an NFL analyst if he’s good, but boy, it’s kind of a cop-out in some ways because we never really had to reckon with … that cognitive dissonance and what it would have entailed.” Kimes said.
Basically, the media can ignore Watson’s misdeeds if he stays the irrelevant and mediocre player he is now. But if he becomes a star quarterback on a Super Bowl contender? Well, the elephant in the room will always be there if he ever returns to form, and the media still hasn’t given an indication of how they’ll handle it.
Of course, Deshaun Watson is far from the only player to do horrific things and get a slap on the wrist (looking at you Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Ray Rice). But after such a prominent case and historic punishment, it’s critical that NFL media and fans mitigate the harm that may come from ignoring Watson’s past, even amidst more immediate narratives.