How NFL Teams Talk Themselves Into Players Like Deshaun Watson

The Cleveland Browns signed the quarterback despite many allegations of sexual misconduct.

Deshaun Watson
Carmen Mandato / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET on March 24, 2022.

The Cleveland Browns are acting as if they conducted a high-level, CSI-like investigation before offering Deshaun Watson a five-year, $230 million deal late last week. It’s a laughable pretense.

The quarterback, formerly of the Houston Texans, faces 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of a range of inappropriate and coercive sexual behavior. Female massage therapists allege that, among other acts, Watson exposed himself, inappropriately touched them with his penis, or, in two cases, forced them to perform oral sex. The Browns insisted in a recent statement that they have “spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating” whether to trade for him. “We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision,” they declared. “Our team’s comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved.”

What the Browns might as well have said was: He’s good at football. End of story. The “comprehensive evaluation process” no doubt found that Watson is 26 years old, is already a three-time Pro Bowl selection, led the Texans to consecutive playoff berths, and has the talent of a potential NFL MVP. Having done that due diligence, the Browns were comfortable with trading away a bevy of valuable draft picks and promising Watson—who has denied any nonconsensual sexual conduct—the most guaranteed money in NFL history.

This is typical behavior by NFL teams, which are notorious for vouching for the character of players with a deeply worrisome history, when in truth the only trait that they really care about is whether that player possesses the necessary drive to compete and to win championships. Of course football character and personal character have frequently proved to be two very different things.

The New England Patriots infamously decided in 2010 to draft Aaron Hernandez, then a troubled University of Florida tight end, despite widespread concerns about his personality and his disciplinary history. According to The Wall Street Journal, a scouting service did a pre-draft psychological evaluation of Hernandez and gave him the lowest possible score for “social maturity,” but a nine out of 10 for “receptivity to coaching” and an above-average score for “dedication.”

Hernandez later received a life sentence for murder and died by suicide in prison. Although the Patriots couldn’t predict that Hernandez would one day be convicted of a cold-blooded killing, plenty of warning signs suggested that they should pass on him in the draft.

This is not to say that Watson—whom a grand jury in Houston declined to criminally charge earlier this month—should be painted in the same light as Hernandez. (A grand jury in a nearby Texas county also declined to charge him.) But clearly the Browns decided that Watson was such a special talent that they could put aside any doubts about him, much as the Patriots did with Hernandez.

The allegations against Watson weren’t disqualifying factors for the Browns, or for the many other teams who were hoping to land him, especially once the grand jury chose not to indict him. In fact, there was a bidding war for Watson’s services, which ultimately led the Browns to reward him with a robust payday.

Watson could still be suspended by the NFL. Under the league’s personal-conduct policy, the NFL has the right to punish players absent criminal charges or convictions. That so many teams covet Watson this badly sends a terrible message, but that’s just the way pro football operates. Case in point: On Wednesday, the Kansas City Chiefs traded wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, who gave Hill a contract that made him the league’s highest-paid wide receiver. Back in 2015, Hill accepted a plea agreement after facing felony charges of domestic assault and battery by strangulation. Hill was accused of choking his pregnant girlfriend and punching her in the stomach and face. And in 2019, Hill was briefly suspended while under investigation for alleged child abuse. (No charges were ultimately filed.)

Hill, like Watson, is still in the NFL. Meanwhile, the exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been regularly posting videos of himself on social media working out with players in different cities, but he hasn’t had a team of his own in years. That the former San Francisco 49er was left jobless after kneeling in protest during the national anthem, while players accused of violent misconduct are paid top dollar, is quite a statement about what the NFL deems a threat to the integrity of the league. (Full disclosure: I am a producer of the ESPN documentary series that Kaepernick and the director Spike Lee are making about the former quarterback’s banishment from pro football.)

Unlike Kaepernick, Watson will apparently keep playing football, but he’ll be a divisive figure. Some defenders see him as a prominent Black athlete whose reputation is being unfairly sullied by accusers who are only seeking money. Others see a serial predator who avoided criminal prosecution only because sexual-assault accusations almost never lead to a conviction.

The only opinion that really matters, though, is the Browns’, and they see Watson as an opportunity. In the NFL, if you’re talented enough, there is no such thing as a red flag.