Analysis

Response to Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension represents important litmus test for NFL

On Monday afternoon, a few hours after Judge Sue L. Robinson's decision to suspend Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games was made public, the NFL sent a note to its staff. In it, the NFL assured the staff that it "stands against domestic violence and sexual assault of all forms."

In the next few days, the NFL has a chance to put its actions behind its words.

By Monday evening, the NFL was weighing whether to appeal Robinson's decision -- an appeal would be decided by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee -- a right agreed to by the league and the NFL Players Association in the collective bargaining agreement. The NFL had sought a suspension of at least a year, so allowing the six games to stand without an appeal would undermine the NFL's claims to care about the well-being of women. An increase in the punishment would almost certainly trigger a lawsuit from the players union, a familiar tactic that, in multiple past instances, has resulted in courts reinforcing the power of the commissioner to impose discipline for violations of the personal conduct policy. But a lawsuit would keep Watson's predatory conduct -- Robinson's words -- in the headlines for weeks, when the NFL would certainly prefer the focus to be on football.

None of that is as important, though, as this, from Robinson's ruling: The NFL, she wrote, had proved, "by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report."

Read that again. Watson was a repeat sexual assailant. That makes a six-game suspension mystifying and disheartening, as so much of the behavior by so many people involved in this case has been.

Somewhat incredibly, considering she said Watson's behavior was predatory and amounted to sexual assault, Robinson stressed that there was no violence involved in Watson's assaults, a factor in her decision to settle on six games. That, at best, implies that causing unwanted sexualized contact is not inherently violence against the victim.

The NFL's request for an indefinite suspension of at least a year was rebuffed by Robinson, who settled on six games, because she thought such a lengthy suspension represented a "dramatic shift" in its culture without providing fair notice to players about what was expected from them and what the fallout could be. So Robinson relied on the precedent set by other cases. But there is no analogous case to Watson's, because of the volume of accusations. Robinson was presented with four cases (of the 24 accusations originally made in civil suits). The precedents on which Robinson relied did not have multiple victims, and, perhaps more importantly, some of those precedents were products of a different era, before the recent awakening to violence against and harassment of women that was birthed by the Me Too movement. Jameis Winston, for instance, was suspended three games for inappropriately touching a woman. One woman. Issuing a significantly longer suspension, in a case involving four victims of sexual assault, does not sound like a "dramatic shift."

The NFL's response to Robinson's decision represents an important litmus test for the league, which has not had a case as high-profile and disturbing involving behavior with women since 2014, when Ray Rice was initially suspended for just two games after knocking out his fiancée in a hotel elevator. The league's disastrous handling of that episode of domestic violence -- the subsequent release of a video showing the attack forced the NFL to suspend Rice indefinitely, essentially ending his career -- was one of the lowest moments in the league's history. Robinson cited the Rice case when she noted that the NFL often reacts to public outcry. Of course, so do all businesses.

The approach with Rice revealed a cluelessness and -- worse -- a callousness that the NFL badly needs to prove it has since remedied. Whatever gains have been made by subsequent years of public and private programs about domestic violence and workplace harassment, and all the celebrations of Women's History Month, would largely be erased if the NFL is satisfied with a similar slap on the wrist for Watson.

Watson has given the league ample reason to display its new bona fides. Even as Robinson said this was non-violent sexual conduct, she noted that his pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL. This was not what Watson's lawyer flippantly suggested was just a man looking for a "happy ending" at a massage. This was a pattern of behavior that amounted to sexual assault. Despite that, as Robinson also noted, there has been no public expression of remorse from Watson.

During the fallout from the Rice case, one long-time team owner boiled the situation down for me one day. Why, he wondered, was the NFL going easy on a man who beat a woman? The NFL should come down hard, he said -- and let the players union take up for the abuser if it wished. The NFL, he said, should not be afraid to take up that fight.

Rice and the union did eventually win Rice's reinstatement after he appealed his suspension, though Rice never played again. Robinson cited the arbitrator's decision in the Rice case when arguing that it is unfair to change penalties for conduct after the fact.

But that should not dissuade the NFL from doing everything it can to prove that it really does stand against domestic violence and sexual assault in all forms. Robinson got at least one thing very right in her decision Monday -- the NFL appears to be trying to enact a "dramatic shift" in its culture.

It is long overdue.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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