Deshaun Watson Traded to Browns in Controversial Move

To add to an already eventful offseason in the National Football League (NFL), the Houston Texans traded quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns for an extensive package including three first-round draft picks on March 18. In the controversial move, the Browns have committed to Watson with a historic $230 million guaranteed contract, all while Watson still faces civil lawsuits from 22 women alleging sexual harassment and assault. 

Watson was benched this past season by the Houston Texans once the 22 active civil lawsuits, as well as 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct, were brought against him. However, Watson’s situation shifted this past month once a grand jury in Harris County, Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal charges. The Cleveland Browns, along with the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, all attempted to trade for Watson while simultaneously ignoring the complaints of sexual misconduct that still remain. 

The NFL may still choose to suspend Watson for part of the 2022 season, but the league holds a poor track record of enforcing serious suspensions for sexual misconduct in cases without criminal charges. For instance, quarterback Jameis Winston only received a three-game suspension following inappropriate sexual misconduct against a female Uber driver in 2018. Therefore, it is likely that Watson will be back playing football for part of the 2022 season. 

In the midst of the grand jury decision, though, it is important to note that Watson was not deemed innocent of all wrongdoing. Kenneth Williams, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law Houston, elaborated on the intricacy of the case in to USA Today.

“No indictment doesn’t mean that the allegations were false. … It simply means that the prosecutor and grand jury did not believe there was sufficient evidence to move forward and they did not believe that the charges could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.”

Certainly, the Browns’ move for Watson feels disgusting and will alienate many football fans. By prioritizing football wins over basic morality, the Browns are stooping to new lows and are risking the reputation of their franchise. Not only are the Browns sending a message that they are comfortable with Watson’s accusations, they are also entreating him with the most lucrative guaranteed contract in NFL history by $80 million. 

In an attempt to weather the storm, the Browns introduced their new quarterback in a press conference this past Friday on March 25. Addressing the media directly for the first time in a while, Watson staunchly denied any wrongdoing, according to The Athletic.

“I don’t have any regrets. The things that are off the field right now that came up caught me by surprise because I never did anything that these people are alleging,” he said.

Watson shared the press conference with Browns General Manager Andrew Berry and Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, who both noted their support for the quarterback. Berry defended the move, according to CBS Sports.

“We have done extensive investigative, legal and reference work over the past several months to provide us with the appropriate information needed to make an informed decision about pursuing him and moving forward with him as our quarterback,” Stefanski said. 

However, no actual specifics of the Browns third-party investigation were revealed to the public, which frankly makes the press conference feel obfuscating and deflecting. In fact, Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents all 22 women suing Watson, revealed that the Browns never contacted him during their investigation. NFL Analyst Mina Kimes pressed further on Twitter about the investigation:

“The NFL interviewed several of the women who filed civil suits. Would be curious to hear why the Browns think they have a different standard.”

As expected, the introductory press conference failed to rectify many concerns about the Browns’ willingness to acquire the controversial 26-year-old. The unfortunate truth is that as long as Watson plays football at a high-level, teams will look past his wrongdoings. The Browns have created a public relations disaster that they hope will be mitigated by the team’s future success.

Also affected by the trade is Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who will most likely now be traded away from the team. Mayfield was selected by Cleveland with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led Cleveland to their first playoff victory since 1994 during his tenure. Mayfield’s success in Cleveland adds another layer of confusion to the Browns decision; while Mayfield may not be as talented as his replacement, he reignited the franchise and will be missed dearly by Cleveland fans.