The Cleveland Browns, one of our beloved sports institutions, has knowingly brought a predator to our community.
Deshaun Watson’s National Football League career was hanging by a towel—a rally towel that he draped over his groin, rather than the standard full-body sheet and blanket, as he laid in wait before sexually assaulting dozens of female massage therapists.
NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson on Monday issued her decision in the joint NFL-players union inquiry into Watson’s conduct during his time with the Houston Texans.
At least 30 massage therapists accused Deshaun Watson of unwanted sexual aggression during their sessions with him. The pattern was consistent, unbidden and well-known. Robinson noted that Watson “reached out to women whose professional qualifications were unknown and unimportant to him. He insisted on using a towel, increasing the probability of exposure. He insisted on having the therapists focus on areas of his body that do not uncommonly trigger erections. And he engaged in this pattern of conduct multiple times.”
Things had gotten so bad that the Houston Texans made Watson bring a non-disclosure agreement to his appointments. Instead of telling him to cover up on the massage table, the Texans tried to cover up his behavior. Dozens of therapists filed civil suits, most of which have been settled by Watson and the Texans organization.
To this day, Watson has shown absolutely no remorse or even understanding that what he did was wrong. But rather than suspending him for the entire 2022 season, as the NFL had wanted, Robinson issued a six-game suspension. Six games and he has to get all future massages from team therapists.
Robinson’s decision is a slap on the wrist that feels like a slap in the face to women, sexual assault survivors, and sports fans who believe that the way you win is just as important as the victory.
Despite Robinson’s leniency for what she called “non-violent” offenses, her written decision confirms the accounts of multiple women who had been maligned by “sports fans” who are in denial—or who simply don’t care—about Watson’s behavior. I had hoped this would put an end to the smear campaign against these women, who were just trying to do their job and were put in a threatening situation by a powerful man.
But based on the reception Watson received at Browns training camp yesterday, I no longer hold out that hope.
The truth is, our society still refuses to interrogate its own misogyny, and even seems to find it funny. Remember those memes about the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial? In popular culture, she emerged as the “villain,” despite being the survivor of abuse.
Massage therapy has been sexualized in this country since the U.S. banned paid sex work and brothels began to operate as fake “massage parlors.” There are shockingly few empirical studies about the prevalence of sexual assault on the massage table. A survey from Canada’s University of New Brunswick found that nearly 75 percent of therapists experienced such harassment, and a poll from Massage Tables Now showed nearly two-thirds have received unwanted sexual advances.
But ask any professional in the industry and you’ll get an avalanche of examples. As we all know, the man who murdered eight people in Georgia in 2021 was reportedly inspired by two stereotypes: the sexualization of massage and Asian women. While the NFL’s disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson said Watson’s conduct was “egregious” but “nonviolent,” there’s a short runway between ejaculating on people without their consent and escalating behaviors.
In my local school district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights High School students and alumni are leading a campaign called “Enough is Enough!” to draw attention to an inadequate response to sexual violence. Their demands are safety and justice—seemingly basic guarantees.
The concept of consent is fundamental to a healthy society. No person has the right to do something “egregious” or violent to another person’s body. And predatory behavior doesn’t start when someone signs a professional sports contract. It is experimented with and excused, carried out and covered up along the way—including for student-athletes.
Again, there’s that “conflict” between winning at all costs and victory with values.
When Watson takes the field in October, some fans will applaud his return to the game. But many others—including those who believe that entertainment choices should be an extension of our ethics—will continue to be outraged. The Cleveland Browns, one of our beloved sports institutions, has knowingly brought a predator to our community.
I wonder how the Browns’ massage therapists feel.