NFL Fails to Hold Star Players Accountable to Their Actions


Courtesy of Ron Schwane

DeShaun Watson prepares to throw a football.

A new football season has arrived and with that, an acknowledgement that athletes face considerable scrutiny nowadays. Football, baseball, soccer, basketball — these sports and many others put their players on a pedestal, only for them to be torn down by millions of fans if they fail to match the hype.

This begs the question: if athletes live up to their expectations on the field, what immunity does this give them to stay accountable for off-the-field issues? For the NFL in particular, recent cases have illustrated that stardom affords you a relative level of immunity from accountability. What expectation do we hold professional athletes to when they commit acts that violate our conscience, and what does that reveal about the league and its fans?

Take Deshaun Watson, for example. A quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, he has been accused by 24 women — all of whom served as his personal massage therapists — of coercive sexual behavior during massage therapy sessions. The accusations include two allegations of sexual assault. These alleged instances took place while Watson was on the Houston Texans from March 2020–21. During this time, Watson met with 66 women over the course of 17 months for massages.

What makes Watson’s case especially interesting is what it reveals about the amount of behavioral leeway NFL stars, especially quarterbacks, are given in the league. They are typically viewed as the backbone of the team, the signal-caller, and the paragon of the franchise. Yet time and time again, NFL teams appear willing to look past history of sexual misconduct — including Saints quarterback Jameis Winston and recently retired Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — if the player helps them win games.

How are fans supposed to cheer for their team and its quarterback knowing in the back of their heads that the team platformed players who allegedly did reprehensible things?

So far, Watson has settled or agreed to settle all but one of the remaining lawsuits, while the Texans administra tion has reached settlements with 30 women who claimed they would sue the NFL for enabling Watson’s actions.

As “punishment” for his alleged crimes, Watson and the NFL, along with the NFL Players Association, reached a settlement in his disciplinary matter where they agreed he would serve an 11-game suspension without pay and pay a fine of $5 million. He is also required to undergo mandatory evaluation by behavioral experts and follow a “rigorous” treatment program.

Although $5 million seems like a hefty fine, that’s only two percent of what Watson is guaranteed to be paid over the next five years. When the Browns signed Watson earlier this year, they had agreed to a fully guaranteed five-year contract of $230 million. This was the largest contract in the NFL — and it was was agreed upon even after some allegations against Watson became public.

The message from this is clear: professional athletes can still participate in and profit from sports despite allegedly being sexual assailants. But where do we draw the line? Should Watson never be allowed to participate in the NFL again?

Co-owner of the Cleveland Browns Jimmy Haslam believes everyone should get a second chance in life.

“In this country, and hopefully in the world, people deserve second chances,” Haslam said to the NY Post. “Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? That’s what we’re gonna do.”

Well, Haslam should have added a qualifier to that statement; if an athlete helps a team win games and make money, then of course, they “deserve second chances.”

“You can say that’s because he’s a star quarterback,” Haslam said. “But if he was Joe Smith he wouldn’t be [in] the headlines everyday. We think people deserve a second chance. We gave Kareem Hunt a second chance and that’s worked out pretty well.”

This cycle, in which star athletes who have allegedly done bad things are rewarded with “second chances,” is one that the NFL knows all too well. Adrian Peterson was first indicted by a grand jury in 2014 on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child which occurred earlier that year. He was suspended for the rest of the 2014 season but then signed contracts in 2017 and 2018 and was able to elevate his career and record his eighth 1,000-yard season, tying for sixth-most of all-time. He is regarded as one of the greatest running backs in football history.

Another famous NFL player, Ray Rice, was caught on video punching his fiancée and knocking her out in an elevator in 2014. Due to public backlash after the video went viral, the NFL changed its policy regarding how it handles domestic violence cases. Somehow though, it feels as if nothing has changed.

Powerful men in the NFL have committed heinous crimes for decades. If they serve the team’s bottom line — to sell tickets and win games — they often face little to no consequence. Whether it’s Kareem Hunt, Ben Roethlisberger, or Jameis Winston, these athletes have been elevated to an elite status in the professional athletic hierarchy — they serve as idols for millions of fans. If the allegations against Deshaun Watson are true, then he fits into this list as well. Fans who root passionately for any NFL team should carefully consider whether the star player and general culture they support reflect their personal values.