While Deshaun Watson sat out the 2021 NFL season, it went smoothly without him.
The league brought in a record $11 billion in national revenue. TV ratings rose 10% to their highest since 2015. The Super Bowl was watched by over 110 million viewers, which is also the highest figure since 2015.
There was no shortage of Deshaun Watson in the NFL.
And yet, after spending a year on probation while 26 lawsuits were filed by massage therapists, Watson, the franchise’s best quarterback, was welcomed not as a depreciated asset but rather a hot commodity.
His former team, the Houston Texans, brought in six draft picks, including three in a row in the first round, from the Cleveland Browns. The Browns then gave Watson a record $230 million guarantee, including a $45 million signing bonus, even though they knew an NFL suspension – ultimately an 11-game 2022 season suspension – was imminent.
BAUER DFA: Los Angeles says Bauer ‘will no longer be part of our organization’
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Void the very specific allegations that appeared in the two dozen lawsuits filed against Watson, 23 of which were settled confidentially. Or the idea that he deployed dozens of massage therapists in a short time – 66 in 17 months, according to one report.
And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that nearly half of NFL fans are women. Watson can win soccer games.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday named Trevor Bauer for assignment, severing ties with the pitcher 15 days after the referee upheld 60% of his 324-game suspension imposed by Major League Baseball for violating the Common Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy . The 324-game ban was a policy record, and after Bauer’s dismissal, the 194-game ban upheld remains the longest ever.
The suspension cost Bauer $37.5 million in salary, although he will still receive about $22 million of the $35.3 million he was owed this year. His biggest loss may not be monetary.
Chances greater than zero that Bauer played his last major league game; at least we know one team decided to wash their hands of him. It takes 29 more clubs to determine whether any benefit the future 32-year-old Cy Young Award winner brings in a short season will be worth the reputational loss. Perhaps some even consider, as part of their calculations, the feelings of women whose otherwise carefree day on the field would be ruined by the sight of Bauer throwing for or against their favorite team.
To be clear, this is not meant to be a bad NFL exercise, a good MLB exercise.
However, the large league environment that would purge Bauer signals a cultural shift, albeit a modest one, that has occurred in the league and its franchises. It is equally clear that 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 improve any rotation. That’s why the Dodgers awarded him a $102 million contract in February 2021, even if the right-hander’s personality provoked more red flags than would be seen in 188 laps at Talladega.
No small number of Dodgers fans voiced their displeasure when Bauer was signed, left to hold his nose as he pitched. The Dodgers president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, claimed the club had done their homework on Bauer. Now Friedman has one more year to juggle the consequences of the most reckless deal of his otherwise illustrious career.
Almost immediately it turned sour, Bauer was placed on administrative leave in July 2021 after a California woman filed a five-year protective order against him. She claimed that Bauer strangled her unconscious during two consensual sexual encounters and penetrated her anally without her consent. The woman sought treatment at the hospital for facial and vaginal injuries.
The protection order was eventually lifted in August 2021, and after a seven-month review of the charges, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office decided not to press charges. But sport too often reminds us of the difficulties of prosecuting alleged sexual assaults, and the absence of charges does not necessarily mean the absence of abuse.
This concept is a pillar of MLB’s domestic violence policy, as evidenced by the 15 domestic violence-related suspensions since 2015 – and only one resulting in a conviction.
The dossier against Bauer will grow after a Washington Post report revealed that an Ohio woman received a temporary protection order from Bauer in June 2020 due to injuries she told police she sustained during a 2017 encounter as well as text messages with threats.
Bauer denied all allegations, calling his encounters with the California woman “completely consensual” and was not charged with a crime. However, the allegations against him created a public record far more extensive than any previous culprit in MLB’s domestic violence policy.
After the county decided not to press charges in February 2022, the league office spent nearly three more months considering discipline before suspending Bauer on April 29. Bauer appealed the suspension.
On December 22, an arbitrator jointly appointed by MLB and the union agreed that policy had been violated and largely agreed with the parameters of the penalty. In short, a 10-month league investigation, followed by nearly eight months of referee deliberations, determined that an unprecedented length suspension was warranted.
Typically flashy, Bauer was a bit more muted in his reaction, focusing on his reinstatement rather than serving his sentence. His online acolytes will continue to do his bidding while talking about themselves all the time.
At this point, to say that you completely reject the accusations against Bauer means that you will probably never believe women.
While Watson’s case differs from Bauer’s on so many levels, his future in the NFL rests on the same concept.
Can you watch Watson play quarterback and not think about the twenty masseurs who have made disturbing allegations against him? How they might feel to see him elevated, even if only by drunken sycophants on the shores of Lake Erie?
Can any victim of sexual assault – according to RAINN, 1 in 6 American women have been raped or attempted raped – play a game involving Watson or Bauer without reopening old wounds?
Unfortunately, the fate of these men’s livelihoods ultimately comes down to business. The Browns have made a business decision and apparently can live with any blemishes that may come if Watson leads them to the first Super Bowl in their largely tragicomic history.
We don’t yet know if specifically Watson is a local or global deterrent. One indicator isn’t encouraging: a Forbes report indicates that NFL viewership is down 3% from last year’s numbers. The NFL says the main culprit is moving Thursday night’s game off the web to streaming, which would divert blame from both Watson and a damning Congressional report on sexual misconduct within the Washington Commanders organization.
However, even if you are tied strictly to balance sheets rather than, say, basic decency, creating an environment undesirable for women is bad business.
Now we’ll find out if Bauer is too toxic for the 29 other teams that can just wait until Bauer clears waivers and signs him for a minimum of $720,000. The Dodgers did well without him, burning off some decent if not integral prospects to replace him with Max Scherzer one year and rehabilitating the careers of many mid-level pitchers to make up the difference the next.
And perhaps that is the reality Bauer faces now, a lesson we learned during Watson’s year-long absence. You will almost certainly get your money. You can express your grievances as loudly and as often as you like.
But you will not miss.