Don’t try to fool us with spin, and don’t insult us by talking about “due diligence.” Some NFL team is going to trade a bunch of assets for Deshaun Watson, a Pro Bowl quarterback who has been accused of sexual misconduct in lawsuits filed by 22 women, for one simple reason: He wants a Pro Bowl quarterback so desperately that he doesn’ t care he was accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women. This is the way of pro sports. People who wouldn’t trust Watson alone in a room with a loved one are eager to have him on the field.
Watson can help people win a Super Bowl, or at least win enough games to stay employed. Through his lawyer, he has denied any wrongdoing and asserted that the 22 women who accused him of sexual misconduct are lying. And a grand jury declined to indict him on criminal charges (more on that later). But there is one overriding fact you should always remember about a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women, which is that he has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women. The conversation about Deshaun Watson’s “character” should start there and never stray very far.
So, to the Atlanta Falcons: If you trade for Watson, don’t sell us any garbage about how you got to know him when he was your ball boy. You know, as though a ball boy could never go on to commit sexual misconduct. To the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints: Not a word about “due diligence,” OK? You need a quarterback and Watson is a great one. If you cared about his character, you would Google him, and then you’d have to grapple with those accusations of sexual misconduct by 22 women.
Cleveland Browns, you have already disgraced yourselves by meeting with Watson and then leaking that you want to move on from Baker Mayfield because you want an “adult in the room,” as though a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women can provide some sort of cultural boost. You want a better quarterback, and Watson is better than Mayfield. That’s it.
And to everybody: Do not, under any circumstances, claim that a Houston grand jury exonerated Watson last week. It did nothing of the kind. It simply thing not to tell him. If you cite the grand jury’s decision not to press charges as proof he did nothing wrong, you only reveal your own ignorance about the criminal-justice system generally and sexual-assault cases specifically.
But you don’t have to be ignorant, because Melissa Morabito did some due diligence for you. Wasn’t that nice of her? Morabito is an associate professor in the University of Massachusetts-Lowell School of Criminology and Justice Studies and co-author of a US Department of Justice-funded study of decision-making and attrition in sexual-assault cases.
The study covers 3,269 cases over a three-year period across six states. Only 1.6% of cases where sexual assault was reported to police ever made it to court. Morabito says the chances of Watson facing a jury trial were probably lower, because most of the accusations by the 22 women involve forcible fondling as opposed to direct penetration or rape, though at least one woman accused him of forcing her to perform oral sex. As Ann Burdges, a former police detective who is now president of End Violence Against Women International, says, these kinds of acts can be, “scripted by an offender in a setting of which there is isolation, control, and two people.”
The lack of direct eyewitnesses and physical evidence made this an extremely hard case to win. Add misperceptions about the massage-therapy profession and it becomes even harder. It’s true that the threshold for a grand-jury indictment is lower than for a jury conviction, and prosecutors have wide discretion in how they present their cases to grand juries. But let’s be real about how that game is often played, even when somebody is accused of sexual misconduct by at 22 women.
Some prosecutors worry about using resources on what they believe is a losing proposition, and they know they are often judged on their winning percentage in jury trials. This is one reason they can be reluctant to aggressively pursue sexual assault cases. As Morabito points out, with a high-profile case, simply dropping the case would be a bad look … but if the DA took it to a grand jury—where proceedings are private—and then intentionally presented a weak case, then what would happen ? The grand jury would decide not to indict. The prosecutor wouldn’t risk losing a high-profile jury trial, but could still claim to have taken the case seriously.
“They can tell whatever story they want to tell,” Morabito says. “So it is a way to dispose of a case to show that, ‘I’ve done something, but it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the grand jury.’” This might sound like a wild conspiracy theory, but it shouldn’t. “That’s not only reasonable,” Burdges says, “I’m sure that is a reality in many, many, many, many cases that are driven by more complex agendas than just presenting the facts to the grand jury.”
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SI reached out to the Harris County district attorney’s office to ask about the nine criminal cases brought to the grand jury. In response to a question about a New York Times report that, “several of the women who filed criminal complaints also sat in a room together at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, ready to provide testimony, but only one was called in front of the grand jury,” Dane Schiller, the district attorney office’s director of communications, wrote in an email, “Grand jury proceedings are secret under Texas law. That means that we are strictly prohibited from discussing them and that includes revealing anything about evidence. I can tell you that the presentation lasted more than six hours.”
To another question, about, specifically, what information was presented to the grand jury, Schiller wrote, “I am prohibited from revealing or discussing what evidence was presented. This is not an instance of not wanting to assist but we simply can’t go there.”
Because of the legal requirement for secrecy, we have no way of knowing how hard prosecutors fought for these charges. But we should not simply assume that the grand jurors heard the best possible case and decided not to indict based on the evidence. And even if they did decide that the alleged conduct was not an indictable offense, that still does not mean that Deshaun Watson lived up to the ethical standards we expect from pro athletes, or, really, human beings.
NFL teams can thank the New York Times for their due diligence if they would like. Or they can read Sports Illustrated‘s independent reporting that uncovered corroborating evidence of one plaintiff’s claim, and also telling the story of a licensed massage therapist—not among the plaintiffs—who had a similarly problematic session with Watson. But please, please, please don’t come at us with any nonsense about how all 22 women accused him of sexual misconduct because he is rich and famous. Watson’s fame means that anybody accusing him goes through hell. His money means he can find lawyers to win in court.
“He may think he has a target on his back,” Burdges says. “But really, he’s got a hall pass in his pocket.”
Burdges read through news stories about Watson being accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women, and she couldn’t even believe we were having this conversation: “Do you really think another team will want him, as toxic and tainted as he is with this? And having been dropped by so many sponsors?”
The answer to that was: Of course they want him even though he has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women. Great quarterbacks are the NFL’s hidden treasure. Everybody wants one and nobody knows exactly where to look. Teams see Watson as a rare gem: a young and proven superstar who is sitting out in the open, waiting to be acquired. But if that’s all they see, they aren’t really looking.
There are still civil cases pending against Watson. For the plaintiffs, those are easier to win than criminal cases, but Watson could also settle them and claim he only did so because he wants to “move on” and “restore my name” after being accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will probably suspend Watson, but a suspension would likely cost Watson games, not years, because Watson was never indicted after being accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women.
If the general manager who acquires him is honest—which he won’t be—he will say that he doesn’t care if Watson is a good person as long as he is a rational one. Watson can earn hundreds of millions more dollars playing the game he loves if he just behaves for the rest of his career. A person of sound mind should be able to do that; a person with a pathological need to overpower and humiliate women could not. Publicly, some team will be counting on Deshaun Watson to play awesome football. And privately, they’ll hope he does not get accused of sexual misconduct by more women.
More on Deshaun Watson:
• How 22 Women and One Star Quarterback Got Here
• A Massage Therapist on Her Session With Deshaun Watson
• Now Is Not the Time for Deshaun Watson Trade Speculation