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Why did the NFL settle with Deshaun Watson?

Analyzing what the NFL salary cap implications will be for selected NFL players

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An NFL official who is familiar with Deshaun Watson, the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, submitted a query when the terms of the Deshaun Watson disciplinary settlement were made public on Thursday. The query is certain to be discussed for some time to come. The specific question captured the winding route the NFL took to reach the negotiated settlement. This path began with the NFL’s 19-month investigation and 215-page report, followed by an overturned arbitration decision and commissioner Roger Goodell’s use of the adjectives “egregious” and “predatory” to describe Watson.

The executive questioned, “After all that, why didn’t [the NFL] drop the hammer?”

An opinion is used to frame the question itself. Many in the league, if not all, believe that Watson’s 11-game ban and $5 million fine are absolute proof that the NFL backed down at the very last minute. Others, including many people who surround the quarterback, believe it to be much steeper than what the evidence supporting the sexual assault and misconduct claims that have dogged Watson since March 2021 justifies. There is an irrefutable reality emerging from this week, though, even from those opposing points of view. It is as follows:

When it appealed the six-game suspension imposed by arbitrator Sue L. Robinson, the NFL assumed control of the Watson case. From the moment it hand-selected former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who has strong ties to the league, to render a final judgement, it effectively controlled the conclusion of the disciplinary process. Everyone in Watson’s camp assumed a home-cooked outcome was on the way from that point on. It implied that the NFL would have its way and receive a one-year suspension that would last forever.

Nevertheless, the league struck a settlement just when it seemed ready to impose that result—its “drop the hammer” moment. An 11-game suspension and a $5 million fine, which will keep Watson’s deal on schedule, were chosen over a one-year suspension that would have brought Watson’s entire contract back by a year and potentially cost $40 million or more.

Why? is a lingering query in the breeze.

Why the NFL opted for Watson to play in 11 games as opposed to criticizing the team owners

The league had complete authority over the disciplinary procedure. And Goodell made it crystal plain what the NFL thought of Watson’s actions in the broad range of accusations. It not only claimed that Watson had committed sexual assault (according to the league’s definition, not necessarily by criminal definition), but it also painted him as a predatory individual who was acting in a way that endangered the “well-being” of the four accusers, whose claims were made public during the disciplinary process.

In addition, the NFL said that the punishment will be a one-year suspension and a monetary fine. Especially since there isn’t any clause prohibiting Watson and his representation from signing a settlement and then claiming that the quarterback is innocent and the deal is just a tool to advance with his career, that isn’t the kind of thing done when the ultimate goal is to turn around and negotiate something less after taking control of the process.

Yet here we are, in that exact location, with the NFL having reached a resolution and Watson providing conflicting signals about his role in the whole ordeal. Watson believes that the compromise is reasonable. A significant portion of his future compensation was at stake, and neither his camp nor the union had the last say in the matter. The arrangement seemed less logical from the NFL’s perspective. Unless there was a justification that wasn’t immediately apparent.

I think there was in the end.

First and foremost, I think Watson’s complete suspension from the league and an even larger financial penalty would have led to yet another arduous attempt to overturn the league’s disciplinary procedures in a federal court. Even if the legal action would have probably failed, there would have been a cost and extra public relations distractions. For those who haven’t been paying attention, the league’s legal expenses are reportedly growing out of control.

Second, the NFL Players Association, which had been quietly fuming over the NFL’s history of investigations—specifically, the league’s investigators’ aggressiveness and follow-through when players (not just Watson) face allegations versus when franchise owners find themselves in legal or moral trouble—could have threatened the league’s team owners with a public relations thrashing.

The last thing the NFL wants is for someone to compile a lengthy list of every possible breach of the personal conduct standard that occurred while each team owner in the league was in office. That might have happened if Watson had received a one-year suspension. The ruling of arbitrator Sue L. Robinson, which eloquently depicted the NFL as a business that is developing principles of player justice as it goes along, is what I believe served as the driving force behind it.

NFL is facing further legal challenges, and its financial situation concerns.

When it comes to the league’s internal judicial process, the majority of fans might not be concerned about that sort of thing. especially when the quarterback in question was the subject of Watson’s caustic civil accusations. However, the union is concerned since every instance like this establishes a standard for how the following player will be treated. The way in which franchise owners are handled is established by the way that every probe of a team owner dissipates into the background.

There is no doubt that there is such a difference. Particularly when an owner, like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, can settle a workplace incident for $2.4 million with former cheerleaders and then act as if nothing ever occurred. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Commanders, may also face consequences that don’t seem at all serious if he is accused of, well, a hell of a lot. There are two eminent team owners there. Imagine a motivated opponent doing a thorough investigation of the league’s other 30 teams and then displaying all the league investigations that were never conducted.

None of which even begins to touch on the laundry list of other issues that have arisen this offseason, such as the $790 million settlement the NFL reached with the city of St. Louis over the Rams’ relocation, Goodell’s appearance before Congress to address the Snyder allegations, Jon Gruden’s lawsuit against the league that has grown significantly more serious, and Oakland’s attempt to have the league heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on an antitrust matter.

I’m sure I’ve missed some litigation. However, you see the point.

All of this served as a background factor in the league’s decision to end the Deshaun Watson disciplinary dispute when it was acceptable to do so. When it came down to it, the league’s team owners didn’t want to be associated with it continuing. They were opposed to the headlines. They did not desire the focus. They didn’t want the split legal fees or unanticipated hassles.

They wished to finish it quickly so they could get back to playing football. They received exactly that from Goodell and the settlement.