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The NFL’s Moment Before

Note: This story contains graphic accounts of domestic violence, threats and sexual assault. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault or domestic violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

NFL investigators began discussions this week with the Cleveland Browns quarterback, Deshaun Watson, to discuss the 22 different accusations of sexual misconduct and assault made against the player. While Watson already sat out the entire 2021 -22 season, a punishment handed down by the Houston Texans, not the NFL; the goal will be to determine if he violated the NFL Personal Conduct policy and, if so, what penalty should be imposed.

Before this week, the NFL investigative team met with all of Watson’s accusers to discuss the allegations against him. Lauren Baxley and Ashley Soli, two of the accusers, even shared their frustrations in speaking to the League with Sports Illustrated. They described the NFL as “patronizing” to the point of  “victim-blaming” during their interviews.  The women were asked everything from what clothes they were wearing to if they had a history of accusing men of sexual misconduct. They framed the interviewers as being curt, interrogative, and defensive. Mind you, the NFL’s investigative team are led by women.

While I try to take everything with a grain of salt and details around the case have been sparse, it is hard to deny a transcript posted by USA Today that corroborates at least some of what the plaintiffs claim. 

I truly believe the NFL is standing at the precipice of a #BrandRewind moment. If I look across the aisle at the MLB, baseball player Trevor Bauer was suspended for an unprecedented 324 games after violating the MLB’s domestic violence policy. The League was commended for handling the matter, although Bauer has since challenged this punishment. Bauer’s punishment inevitably set up a comparison for the National Football League, as it now has to weigh in with disciplinary actions for one of its well-known players. This case sets a precedent for the types of penalties given for off-the-field conduct. Even Bauer recognized their cases were similar in a tweet directed at Deshaun Watson in March.

Albeit Watson’s case has some similarities to Bauer’s, there are a few differences; particularly concerning the actual policy for administering personal discipline. Currently, the NFL’s personal conduct policy says that violations, like sexual assault involving physical force, should result in a suspension of six games – however, it leaves wiggle room for “aggravating or mitigating factors”. 

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t share that Cleveland traded for Watson in March, even after he had been accused by numerous women of sexual assault and general misconduct. It was one of the largest trades in NFL history, giving Watson a 5-year contract extension and a $230 million dollar guarantee. (This is also the largest guaranteed contract ever in the sport and a bad look for the NFL).

Before the NFL makes the decision to continue on with their current policy, handing down a measly six-game suspension, I urge them to consider the implications of that sentence. If it is legitimately found that Watson indeed violated the policy, the brand has a genuine opportunity to show the world, women especially, that sexual misconduct against women means just as much to one league as it does to the other. We don’t typically get a chance to talk about brands before a misstep occurs but in this brief space, let’s hope the NFL takes a moment to value doing what’s right over dollars.