Nearly 17 months after sexual assault accusations were initially levied against him, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for the first six games of the 2022 NFL season.
Given the public outcry regarding the limited nature of Watson’s ban — especially compared to other NFL punishments — we spoke with Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, the nation’s leading anti-sexual assault organization commonly known as RAINN.
Social impact of Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension
Using past NFL precedents as a basis for her decision, Judge Sue L. Robinson handed down Watson’s six-game ban. The NFL, which was originally targeting an indefinite suspension of at least one year, has the right to appeal. If they do, commissioner Roger Goodell or a designated appointee will make the final call on Watson’s punishment.
Here’s what Berkowitz had to say about Watson’s ban, the aftermath, and the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
To start, what is your general reaction to Watson’s suspension?
“I was disappointed that it was significantly shorter than I think is warranted. I’m hoping that the NFL will appeal and that it will end up being somewhere closer to what the league had reportedly asked for.”
Does the NFL need to rethink its personal conduct policy? Are the precedents in place too light?
“I think the league has come a long way and has put a lot of work into this. I think under precedents, a longer suspension was certainly warranted here. There have been longer suspensions for PED use. In my view, rape is a whole lot worse than PEDs.”
How does it make the NFL look when PED and substance abuse suspensions are equal or longer to bans for sexual assault?
“I think it looks like there’s an imbalance in the punishments. From what I’ve read, the league asked for a full-year suspension, which I think was on the right track. A full year is appropriate given the seriousness of the behavior here…
“There’s no punishment that is going to undo the harm [Watson] has done to dozens of women. But I think a year seems a lot more in line with other punishments for serious misbehavior, and it doesn’t get much more serious than accusations of raping two dozen people.”
What kind of message does this punishment send to sexual assault victims?
“It’s unfortunate. I think in cases like this, the public really learns about how our society thinks about and deals with sexual violence. This is one of those moments where the public is widely paying attention to this issue.
“I think it will seem like a light sentence to many survivors. I think it’s a missed opportunity. A longer suspension would have felt more like something better-resembling justice.”
Do you think there will be protests at Browns games this season?
“I don’t know if folks have plans for that, but based on past experience, small protests would not surprise me. But I suspect that once [Watson] is reinstated that fans will go back to just focusing on cheering for the team. I would be surprised if there are big protests.”
What does it say about the Browns and the NFL that Watson was traded for multiple first-round picks and given a fully guaranteed $230 million contract while facing these accusations?
“I was disappointed that the Browns made the decision to trade for him, sign him, and guarantee the full contract. I think they could have been better corporate citizens by going a different route.
“I think one way they can make some effort here is to take the money that they’re not going to be paying while Watson is suspended and give that to causes that will support survivors.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, free and confidential 24/7 support is available through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at: 800.656.HOPE (4673) and via online chat at online.RAINN.org.