From sharing a stage in Deshaun Watson’s biggest moment (so far) to eventually handing down judgment on the embattled quarterback’s future, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is part of Watson’s story no matter how you spin it. Watson entered the NFL on that seemingly far off draft day in 2017. What else he entered into might not be so rosy, based on the 22 sexual misconduct/assault lawsuits the phenom is current facing from massage therapists.
While Goodell’s early years were ruled with a borderline iron-fisted dictatorship, he’s backed off that stance to become someone who seemingly just can’t make a good decision and therefor makes no decision at all—until forced to do so. Goodell is hardly a stranger to legal controversies involving players. From Ben Roethlisberger to Ray Rice to Aaron Hernandez to Antonio Brown, enforcing the NFL’s code of conduct has defined Goodell’s years as the NFL’s top dog. How Goodell’s navigated those shark infested waters has led him to a place of unprecedented disdain from fans (see every time he takes the stage at the NFL Draft). Unlike prior commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, who were widely credited for taking the NFL from a second-rate sport to the most successful athletic enterprise in the history of America, Goodell has no such accolades to lean on. In fact, under his watch, the NFL has priced the average fan out of stadiums, raised merchandise prices across the board to ridiculous levels, and created some of the worst player-league relations anyone can remember.
Goodell is hardly viewed as an asset to the league by the general population. Instead, he’s oft mentioned as the poster boy for the decline of NFL player behavior. From abhorrent, video taped domestic violence incidents to multiple players facing sexual assault charges, drug charges and even murder, the Goodell era stereotype NFL player is hardly the role model of days gone by. Many people blame Goodell for that, right or wrong. Part of this blame might come from how Goodell handles these cases as they arise and how that’s evolved over the years. To that point, his apparent inaction regarding the current Deshaun Watson situation is just another feather in his black hat.
Over at Pro Football Talk, Mike Florio speaks to this, laying out Goodell’s obligations and next steps.
It’s been nearly three months since the first of 22 lawsuits was filed against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson alleging misconduct during massage therapy sessions. The NFL has had a full and fair chance to conduct a preliminary investigation. Soon, the NFL should decide whether Watson will be placed on paid leave pending the resolution of those cases.
As explained a few weeks back, the league has broad discretion to decide whether to utilize the Commissioner Exempt list for Watson, even in the absence of formal criminal charges. If the investigation causes Roger Goodell “to believe” that Watson “may have violated” the Personal Conduct Policy by engaging in a “felony offense,” a “crime of violence,” or a “sexual assault by force,” Goodell can place Watson on paid leave.
Both the aforementioned Ray Rice domestic assault case and the Antonio Brown sexual assault cases dragged on for far too long. While one might lean on the “any publicity is good publicity” mantra for a lot of things, allowing these sorts of extremely negative storylines to permeate public consciousness for months on end continues to give the NFL a collective black eye. Yet Goodell allows Watson’s case to linger, just as he’s done in the past.
In 2019, the league played coy with teams interested in signing receiver Antonio Brown on the question of whether he’d be placed on paid leave based on the filing of a lawsuit alleging that he committed sexual assault and rape, along with an allegation that he retaliated against another person who had made allegations about Brown to SI.com. The league’s unwillingness to commit one way or the other operated as a de facto unpaid suspension, with Brown missing 14 games (and 14 game checks) as teams hesitated to sign him for fear of paying him to not play.
The ticking clock is running out of time. Nick Caserio appears to believe the beginning of training camp will bring some sort of resolution. With the start of camp scheduled for July 27th, nearly six weeks away, Goodell still has time to get in front of this and help shift his public persona as one of the most reviled-by-fans commissioners in NFL history. How he would do that is for him and the NFL’s army of PR people to determine. Odds are that Goodell will continue to read and react as he’s always done. He won’t take action until someone or something forces his hand.
It would be unfair to the Texans, to Watson, and to any team that wants to trade for him to force a guessing game here. Watson is getting $10 million this year from someone, whether he’s on paid leave or not. Before the Texans can make the best decision for the franchise before camp (as G.M. Nick Caserio said they will do on Monday), the Texans need to know the answer to the simple question of whether, based on whatever the Commissioner has learned since mid-March, Watson will or won’t land on the Commissioner Exempt list.
It’s a complicated situation. There are nuances. There are sharply disputed questions of fact. And maybe the league will decide from a P.R. standpoint that the sheer number of allegations mandates paid leave — even if none on them standing alone would require the league to stray from the notion that Watson is entitled to the presumption that he’s innocent until proven guilty.
Whatever the league decides, the league owes it to the Texans, Watson, and his potential next team to make that decision by late July. Frankly, there should be no reason not to make a decision right now.
Many people follow the storyline that the NFL is nothing more than a dramatic spectacle, imbued with heroes, villains, and intriguing scenarios meant to capture and keep fans’ attention. The story of a perceived Boy Scout like Deshaun Watson turning into a despicable villain is certainly one Hollywood has told time and again in movies and TV shows.
Is Goodell just hoping this storyline will do the same? Or, perhaps, is he happy to watch this nail continue to drive into the franchise’s coffin? With Texans season ticket sales, merchandise sales, and fan support at an all time low, it would certainly appear the golden goose is under fire right now. When will Goodell do something to clarify the situation?