USA TODAY US Edition

Opinion: NFL must address Deshaun Watson issue now

- Mike Freeman Columnist USA TODAY

Mike Freeman column: How many women does it take, NFL, before you take action?

A question for the NFL: How many women accusers does it take before you act against Deshaun Watson?

Saying the allegation­s are “deeply disturbing” doesn’t count as action. Everyone is “deeply disturbed” by what we’re seeing. Those words have also become so watered down they don’t mean as much as they used to. I’m deeply disturbed when my wireless quits.

But back to the original question. Is there a specific number?

Is it five women saying Watson behaved inappropri­ately? We passed that number long ago. Is it 10? Passed that, too. Fifteen? That’s very March. Twenty? Amazingly, we’ve left that number in the dust as well.

We’re now at 22 women filing lawsuits against Watson, with some of them making various (but similar) accusation­s of sexual misconduct, including grabbing them, exposing himself, touching them with his genitals, ejaculatin­g on them or forcing them to put their mouths on his genitals.

Even if you believe that half of them are lying, or their lawyer, Tony Buzbee, is a clown orchestrat­ing it all, that still leaves a large number of women accusers. Are they all lying? Every single one of them?

The NFL has mostly been quiet as one of the ugliest stories in recent league history has unfolded before the country. That inaction has to change. That inaction makes it seem like the NFL doesn’t care. While one of the only tools Commission­er Roger Goodell could utilize, the exempt list, hasn’t been used in the offseason before, putting Watson on it would send the message the NFL has at least a modicum of interest in the issue.

Because right now, the league seems completely disinteres­ted. It looks feckless, like it’s waiting for the whole thing to blow over, as if it’s a normal news event like a trade. Maybe if Watson overinflat­ed a football the league would take action.

In fact, Nike has taken sterner action than the league has. It’s a problem when a shoe company morally and ethically outflanks you.

The reasons why the league should act are numerous, and every hurdle Watson’s defenders raise continues to be cleared. Watson has a sterling rep, his backers say. So did Bill Cosby. Hey, wait a minute, none of them have gone to the police. One just did. The lawyer is a carnival barker. That may be true, but if it’s all fake, it’s one of the greatest fakes in history, and Buzbee is doing it at his own peril. All of the women are anonymous. Not any longer. Two came forward this week.

Ashley Solis, the first woman to sue Watson, spoke to reporters on Tuesday.

“Deshaun Watson assaulted and harassed me on March 30, 2020, in my own home, doing what I love most: massage therapy,” Solis said. “I replay the incident over and over in my head, as if I’m trying to wake up from some horrible nightmare. Only that nightmare is real.”

Even if you want to believe all of Buzbee’s clients are lying as part of a mass conspiracy, the woman interviewe­d by Sports Illustrate­d isn’t a client of his.

From the SI story: “Watson stayed on his back for the entire session. While massaging his abdomen, Mary says she noticed ‘different fluids on his stomach.’ She remembers questionin­g whether it was really pre-ejaculate, telling herself, ‘This can’t be what I think it is.’ In the final five to 10 minutes of the session, Mary says Watson began thrusting his pelvis in the air again, this time much faster. ‘At that point, I recognized it for what it was,’ Mary says. She says she told him he needed to ‘calm down.’ He stopped, the session ended and she left the room to let him get dressed.” Does that sound fake to you? One of the biggest arguments against the NFL taking any action now is that you have to allow for due process or wait for criminal charges.

But the NFL hasn’t always cared about due process or criminal charges in the past. When Steelers quarterbac­k Ben Roethlisbe­rger was accused of sexual assault, the NFL suspended him for six games. There was an investigat­ion by police but Roethlisbe­rger was never charged with a crime.

The letter Goodell wrote to Roethlisbe­rger in 2010 was remarkable and could easily apply to Watson today.

“The Personal Conduct Policy makes clear that I may impose discipline ‘even where the conduct does not result in conviction of a crime’ as, for example, where the conduct ‘imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person,’ ” Goodell wrote.

“As the District Attorney concluded, the extensive investigat­ory record shows that you contribute­d to the irresponsi­ble consumptio­n of alcohol by purchasing (or facilitati­ng the purchase of) alcoholic beverages for underage college students,” Goodell wrote, “at least some of whom were likely already intoxicate­d. There is no question that the excessive consumptio­n of alcohol that evening put the students and yourself at risk. The Personal Conduct Policy also states that discipline is appropriat­e for conduct that ‘undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.’ By any measure, your conduct satisfies that standard.”

“I recognize that the allegation­s in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you,” Goodell continued. “My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgevi­lle that can remotely be described as admirable, responsibl­e, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectatio­ns of our fans.”

This isn’t to say that Watson should be suspended. It’s that Goodell is on the record saying conviction­s aren’t the only metrics, and what matters is if conduct “undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL.”

We also know that the NFL loves to talk about how much it cares about women when it suits them. The league has women’s summits, where it brags about all of the progress women are making in the sport. Goodell, at the first one in 2016, emphasized how important women are to the league.

“We believe in diversity,” Goodell said. “We believe we’re better as an organizati­on when we have good people at the table. We have great people at the table. We’re also seeing it on the field. Sarah (Thomas) was our first NFL female official on the field this year, and she did a fantastic job, and we’re very proud of her.”

“You can see that progress is being made,” he said. “And our commitment is we have something called the Rooney Rule, which requires us to make sure when we have an opening, that on the team or the league level, that we are going to interview a diverse slate of candidates. Well, we’re going to make that commitment and we’re going to formalize that we, as a league, are going to do that with women as well in all of our executive positions. Again, we’re going to keep making progress here and make a difference.”

It’s good the NFL is empowering women.

However, there isn’t a better message to show women they matter than acting against Watson.

So, we are back to that question, NFL: How many women does it take?

 ?? SHANNA LOCKWOOD/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? The Texans’ Deshaun Watson faces sexual misconduct allegation­s from 22 women.
SHANNA LOCKWOOD/USA TODAY SPORTS The Texans’ Deshaun Watson faces sexual misconduct allegation­s from 22 women.
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