As Deshaun Watson sat out the 2021 NFL season, it rumbled on smoothly without him.
The league produced a record $11 billion in national revenue. TV ratings were up 10%, highest since 2015. More than 110 million viewers tuned into the Super Bowl, also the highest since 2015.
The NFL did not miss Deshaun Watson.
And yet after a year spent in limbo while he faced 26 lawsuits from massage therapists detailing alleged misconduct, Watson, at his best a franchise quarterback, was greeted not as a depreciated asset but rather a hot commodity.
His former team, the Houston Texans, fetched six draft picks, including three consecutive first-rounders, from the Cleveland Browns. The Browns then gifted Watson a record $230 million guarantee, including a $45 million signing bonus, even as they knew an NFL suspension – ultimately 11 games of the 2022 season – was imminent.
NEWSLETTER: Get the latest sports news straight to your inbox
Never mind the highly specific accusations that emerged in two dozen lawsuits filed against Watson, of which 23 were settled confidentially. Or the notion that he deployed dozens of massage therapists in a short period of time – 66 in 17 months, according to one report.
And never mind, ultimately, that nearly half of NFL fans are women. Watson can win football games.
Yet it doesn’t have to be like that.
Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers designated Trevor Bauer for assignment, cutting ties with the pitcher 15 days after an arbitrator upheld 60% of his 324-game suspension levied by Major League Baseball for violating its joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy. The 324-game ban was a record under the policy and, after Bauer’s appeal, the 194-game ban that was upheld remains the longest ever.
The suspension cost Bauer $37.5 million of salary, though he will still receive about $22 million of the $35.3 million owed him this year. His greatest loss may not be monetary.
There is a better than zero chance that Bauer has pitched his last major league game; at the least, we know one team has decided to wash their hands of him. It will take 29 more clubs to determine whether any benefit a soon-to-be 32-year-old short-season Cy Young Award winner brings will be worth the reputational damage. Perhaps some will even acknowledge, as part of their calculation, the feelings of women whose otherwise carefree day at the ballpark would be ruined by the sight of Bauer pitching for or against their favorite team.
To be clear, this is not intended to be an NFL bad, MLB good exercise.
Yet a major league environment that would cleanse itself of Bauer signals a cultural shift, albeit modest, that’s occurred among the league and its franchises. It’s equally clear such an evolution has not fully occurred in the NFL, at least not when it involves a player of Watson’s caliber.
Bauer is a very good pitcher and would upgrade anyone’s rotation. It is why the Dodgers awarded him a $102 million contract in February 2021, even if the right-hander’s personality provoked more red flags than you’d see over 188 laps at Talladega.
A not insignificant number of Dodgers fans voiced their displeasure when Bauer was signed, left to hold their noses when he pitched. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman claimed the club did its homework on Bauer. Now, Friedman has one more year to juggle the ramifications of the most ill-advised transaction in his otherwise distinguished career.
It turned sour almost immediately, Bauer landing on administrative leave in July 2021 after a California woman sought a five-year protective order against him. She alleged Bauer choked her unconscious during two otherwise consensual sexual encounters and penetrated her anally without her consent. The woman sought treatment at a hospital for facial and vaginal injuries.
The protective order was eventually rescinded in August 2021 and, after a seven-month review of charges, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office opted not to press charges. But sports, too often, remind us the difficulty of prosecuting alleged sexual assaults, and that a lack of charges does not necessarily indicate an absence of abuse.
That concept is a linchpin of MLB’s domestic abuse policy, evidenced by the 15 domestic violence suspensions since 2015 – and just one resulting in a conviction.
The dossier against Bauer would grow, after a Washington Post report revealed an Ohio woman received a temporary order of protection against Bauer in June 2020, due to injuries she told police she suffered in a 2017 encounter as well as threatening text messages.
Bauer has denied all allegations, calling his encounters with the California woman “wholly consensual,” and has not been charged with a crime. Yet the allegations against him created a public record far more voluminous than any previous offender of MLB’s domestic violence policy.
After the county opted not to press charges in February 2022, the league office spent nearly three more months deliberating discipline before suspending Bauer on April 29. Bauer appealed the suspension.
On Dec. 22, an arbitrator jointly appointed by MLB and the union agreed that the policy was violated, and largely concurred with the parameters of the punishment. In short, a 10-month league investigation followed by nearly eight months of an arbitrator’s deliberations determined that a suspension of unprecedented length was justified.
The typically strident Bauer was slightly more muted in his reaction, focusing on his reinstatement rather than the time served. His online acolytes will continue to do his bidding, all the while telling on themselves.
At this point, to say you wholly dismiss the accusations against Bauer means you will likely never believe women.
While Watson’s case differs from Bauer’s on so many levels, his NFL future hinges on the same concept.
Can you watch Watson play quarterback and not think of the two dozen massage therapists who stepped forward with disturbing allegations against him? Of how they might feel to see him exalted, even if only by boozed-up sycophants on the shores of Lake Erie?
Can any sexual assault victims – 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, according to RAINN – turn on a game involving Watson or Bauer without reopening old wounds?
Sadly, the fate of these men’s livelihoods ultimately comes down to business. The Browns made a business decision and can apparently live with whatever taint that might come if Watson leads them to the first Super Bowl in their largely tragicomic history.
We don’t yet know if Watson, specifically, is repellent on a local or global scale. One metric is not encouraging: A Forbes report indicates NFL viewership is down 3% from last year’s numbers. The NFL says the move of its Thursday night game from network to streaming is the main culprit, which would divert blame both from Watson and a damning congressional report on sexual misconduct in the Washington Commanders’ organization.
Yet even if you’re wedded strictly to balance sheets and not, say, basic decency, creating an environment unwelcome to women is bad business.
Now, we will find out if Bauer is too toxic for 29 other teams, who can simply wait for Bauer to clear waivers and sign him for the minimum $720,000. The Dodgers have gone on fine without him, burning a pair of decent if not integral prospects to replace him with Max Scherzer one year, and rehabilitating the careers of multiple mid-level pitchers to make up the difference the next.
And perhaps that’s the reality Bauer now faces, a lesson we learned during Watson’s one-year absence. You will almost certainly get your money. You can air your grievances as loudly and as frequently as you like.
But you will not be missed.