Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns walks onto the field...

Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns walks onto the field during training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on July 30, 2022, in Berea, Ohio. Credit: TNS/Nick Cammett

After former federal judge Sue L. Robinson handed down a six-game suspension to Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson over sexual misconduct allegations made by 24 female massage therapists, the NFL didn’t immediately say what its next steps might be in either accepting the decision or seeking greater punishment through an appeal.

But the first sentence of the league’s official comment on Robinson’s decision may have offered a clue about its thinking. Especially the part about “her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL personal conduct policy by Deshaun Watson.”

Notice the league used the phrase “multiple violations” of the conduct policy, a potential hint that the league is not satisfied with what is essentially a slap on the wrist for a player who engaged in unacceptable behavior over a three-year period. And if the NFL does decide to pursue an appeal to strengthen the penalty, then it will be an entirely appropriate course of action.

Watson has maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, but Robinson herself made clear that was simply not the case. And though she used the term “nonviolent sexual assault” in her explanation of her decision to hand down a six-game suspension, it’s still sexual assault. She may have added the word “nonviolent” to compare the six-game suspension to other penalties issued previously by the league, but the league contended during the three-day hearing in June that the scope of what Watson had done was simply unprecedented.

It was unprecedented, and a longer suspension and a hefty fine are warranted. The league argued in its case that Watson ought to sit out the entire season, and that’s a fair request. At the very least, the six-game sanction should be doubled.

The league has until Thursday to decide whether to appeal. In the meantime, the reaction to the six-game reaction has been swift and critical.

“It is unacceptable, insulting, and dangerous — but not surprising — that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will face merely a six-game suspension — with no fines — following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made by more than two dozen women,” the National Organization for Women said in a statement Tuesday.

USA Today columnist Nancy Armour called the suspension “laughably light” and referred to Watson’s “predatory behavior” in criticizing the sanction. And many media critics and fans noted the irony that Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the entire season for online gambling, while Watson’s penalty was roughly a third of that. And longtime Texans beat writer and columnist John McClain, who called Watson’s situation “unprecedented in the history of sports” at any level, lamented the fact that Watson’s penalty is identical to Arizona Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ six-game suspension for a failed test for performance-enhancing drugs.  

Watson, meanwhile, continues to practice with the team, and he has been greeted favorably by Browns fans attending training camp. That’s not surprising, given that fans are often willing to overlook personal transgressions of those who can help their sports teams. The Browns organization stands behind Watson, with team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam suggesting in a statement released after the suspension that Watson “is remorseful that his situation has caused much heartache to many, and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”

Keep in mind, however, that Robinson noted in her decision that Watson did not express remorse during his testimony, and she found his pronouncements of his innocence to not be credible.

“It is difficult to give weight to a complete denial when weighed against the credible testimony of the investigators who interviewed the therapists and other third parties,” she wrote in her decision.

Robinson also specified that Watson could only receive massage treatment from therapists approved by the team he is playing with for the remainder of his career (in this case, the Browns for the next five seasons) — another reminder of how seriously his aberrant behavior must be addressed in the future.

And now it’s the NFL that makes the next move. The hope here is that the league appeals the decision and hands down a more significant — and a more justifiable — punishment.

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