Deshaun Watson has hovered like a ghost over the NFL for more than a year, ever-present but almost entirely unseen and unheard. With a January 2021 trade demand shortly followed by scores of sexual misconduct allegations stemming from massage therapy sessions, one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks abruptly entered a bizarre, unsettling exile.
Now the Browns will host his re-entry into the league, as Watson chose Cleveland as his trade destination on Friday — a surprising development, considering the Browns had been informed that they were eliminated from consideration just one day prior. That final twist followed a courtship by at least four teams — the Browns, Falcons, Panthers and Saints — who waited just long enough to find out Watson would not be charged with any crimes before burying any lingering queasiness and plowing ahead with a pursuit of the rarest of NFL prizes: a young, top-five quarterback, available on the open market.
The payoff for the Browns could be enormous. The message sent by this portion of Watson’s life and career arc is pretty big, too. Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits and an NFL investigation that could result in a suspension. Shortly after the trade was announced, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy released the following statement:
“Any transaction would have no effect on the NFL’s ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson. Nor would it affect his status under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Personal Conduct Policy. “If the league’s investigation determines that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy, discipline may be imposed pursuant to the policy and the CBA.”
A grand jury declined to indict Watson last Friday, eliminating the greatest threat to his reputation and his career. But the behavior of which Watson is accused remains, at the very least, disturbing. There will undoubtedly be public outcry over this trade. The four aforementioned teams knew all of that and took it into consideration — especially the fact that Watson could miss games in 2022 — before hoping they would be the chosen recipients of the three-time Pro Bowler’s prodigious talent. None of this should surprise anyone.
The message has been made abundantly clear in recent years: Football teams are not ultimately in the business of being moral pillars for their communities, despite the Women’s History Month celebrations and anti-racism slogans. They are in the business of winning games. And that is what all of us — players, coaches, fans, media — demand of them every day.
And that is why — distasteful as the recruiting meetings looked, juxtaposed as they were with Watson being deposed for some of the civil cases — teams were quite literally lining up to meet with the quarterback. In fact, some teams considered trading for him last season, long before they knew what the grand jury would decide.
If the Browns win with Watson — and let’s be honest, they have a much better chance of winning the Super Bowl now and for the next decade with Watson in the fold — they will be heralded in many circles for their aggressive pursuit of excellence. If they had not pursued Watson and lost, they would not have been spared criticism. That is the balancing act teams face, and from a business perspective, it’s hard to blame them for their choices.
Throughout all of this, Watson, who has maintained his innocence, has yet to publicly express any humility about even being in this predicament. Whenever he finally addresses the situation in Cleveland, a note of regret would help. It is a well-worn path to public acceptance — just ask Mike Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles — and it would seem to be crucial for a face of a franchise.We shouldn’t have to choose between baseline decency and winning a lot of games. Now that Watson is back, let’s hope he proves the Browns didn’t just make that choice for us.