Recently, the Cleveland Browns offered a historic $230million to acquire Deshaun Watson, a well-known talent as a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL). However, that impressive sum of money fails to capture a critical component in this significant moment for the Browns and the NFL.
What exactly is that missing piece?
The quarterback in question, Deshaun Watson, has numerous outstanding allegations of sexual misconduct against him, facing 22 active civil suits accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct.
We at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation are gravely concerned with this decision from the Browns and Deshaun Watson, as well as the NFL’s larger pattern of tolerance for exploitation within and across its ranks.
Watson’s Trade Inadvertently Minimizes Survivor Voices
Watson’s trade to the Cleveland Browns is being touted as historic due to the contract guaranteeing him more money and more years than to any player in the history of the NFL. However, never in history has such a contract been extended to an individual with such a highly questionable track record of sexual misconduct.
Though Watson faces 22 active lawsuits, the Browns released a statement referring to these as “some legal proceedings” and “complex factors”—failing to recognize the deeply disturbing fact that behind each allegation is a survivor waiting for their voice to be heard. The Browns failed to reach out to any of these survivors during the course of the team’s “comprehensive evaluation process.”
The Browns actions attempt to minimize Watson’s accountability, but instead minimize the voices of real survivors. The message is clear: the Cleveland Browns do not take sexual assault and abuse seriously.
The NFL Turns a Blind Eye to Their Personal Conduct Policy
The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy clearly states:
It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.
Players convicted of a crime or subject to a disposition of a criminal proceeding (as defined in this Policy) are subject to discipline. But even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline. Prohibited conduct includes but is not limited to the following:
. . . Assault and/or battery, including sexual assault or other sex offenses . . .
Sexual assault and violence against women are a pervasive blight on our society.
At the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, we believe in the power of institutions and companies like the NFL and the Cleveland Browns to set standards that ensure collective responsibility in eliminating sexual violence. Such decisions have lasting social consequences far beyond the realm of sports and profits.
Survivors of Sexual Assault Deserve to Be Heard
Research has shown that as many as 65% of victims of sexual assault or rape do not report the occurrence, due to factors such as fear and a lack of faith in the system to hold their abusers accountable.
The actions of the Browns blatantly ignore pending legal cases, even rewarding a potential serial abuser. This fosters a culture of silence which only furthers the normalization of sexual violence against women.
Does the NFL Care About Fighting Exploitation?
This instance with the Cleveland Browns and Deshaun Watson merely echoes a larger issue seen across the entire NFL.
As our Tackle Demand campaign, as well as other advocacy campaigns, point out: the NFL is a serial offender when it comes to ignoring, denying, or forgiving a multitude of forms of violence against women.
When the NFL promotes and elevates an alleged, serial sexual exploiter, while continuing to operate with unclear and inconsistently applied policy regarding personnel and their sexual misconduct, we have to ask: is there serious concern for issues of sexual violence and exploitation?
The NFL must take matters of sexual exploitation seriously by improving and consistently applying its policy regarding sexual abuse and exploitation.
It is simply unacceptable that high-profile players like Mr. Watson are not held to a clear, rigorous, and consistently applied standard that prioritizes the rights and well-being of those who are being sexually abused and exploited.
Issues of sexual abuse and exploitation are not mere inconveniences for a highly visible and supposedly respectable organization to brush off with sterilized press statements. They are serious issues of truth and justice for all that impact real human beings and the wellbeing of our culture.