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Deshaun Watson Suspension Proves NFL’s Process of Handling Discipline Is Still Broken

Deshaun Watson suspension proves NFL’s process of handling discipline is still broken. Here is what needs to be fixed going forward.

Some will say that the punishment levied is too strict. Others will say it is not nearly enough (this writer believes the discipline handed down is merely a slap on the wrist). Monday morning news broke that Sue L. Robinson, the jointly appointed (by the NFL and NFLPA) disciplinary officer, had handed down a suspension of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson will miss the first six games of the 2022 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He also will not be fined and due to how the Browns structured his contact, Watson will lose a relatively minuscule amount of money based on the total value of his contract, which is fully guaranteed.

Deshaun Watson Suspension Shows NFL’s Handling of Discipline Still Needs Work

In civil lawsuits filed, 25 women have accused Watson of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions while he was with the Houston Texans. In June, Watson settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits he was facing (one of the 25 lawsuits was dropped following a judge’s ruling in April 2021 which stated that the plaintiffs needed to disclose their names on their petitions). On Monday, Watson agreed to settle three of the remaining four lawsuits.

The Gap Between the NFL and NFLPA

Prior to the judgment coming down on Monday, it was reported that the league wanted Watson to be suspended for at least one year, while the NFLPA felt he should not be suspended at all. In the past few days, it was reported that the league’s best offer was a 12-game suspension and a fine of around $8 million. While it was reported that Watson’s camp said an agreement could be reached with a suspension of around six to eight games.

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No settlement was reached and so Sue L. Robinson had to make her first judgment as the jointly appointed disciplinary officer. She arrived at a suspension of six games and no fine. If this is the final decision that means Watson can continue to practice with the Browns and play in preseason games (which is important given that he did not play a single snap during the 2021 season). Once the season starts, he would not be able to practice with his team until Week 4 and he would be eligible to return to play in the Browns Week 7 game on the road against the Baltimore Ravens.

The reason why the process that the NFL uses to dispense discipline is broken has to do with the appeals process. Both sides have three days to file an appeal. While the NFLPA released a statement on Sunday, prior to the ruling, which stated they would abide by the decision made by Sue L. Robinson, the NFL has made no such statement. The league could easily file an appeal.

Issue With the Appeals Process

But the issue is, if the NFL files the appeal (or if the NFLPA changes their tune and files one), the league would hear the appeal (most likely by Roger Goodell). The NFL appealing this decision and also being responsible for hearing the appeal would make many people wonder why a disciplinary officer was appointed by the league and NFLPA in the first place. Those people would want to know the point of having a “middleman” involved in the system if the decision ultimately wound up being decided by the NFL once again.

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But if the NFL does not file an appeal, they would look incredibly weak, and the optics would be damning. It would appear to some that the league was at least tacitly agreeing with the decision that was handed down on Monday. And that would be difficult for many to stomach. People will point to Calvin Ridley being suspended for an entire season for betting around $1,500.00. Or DeAndre Hopkins receiving the same punishment as Watson for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, among other examples. And yes, it is impossible to equate all of these transgressions because what Watson has been accused of is inarguably the most egregious. And yes, those suspensions, along with all of the previous discipline the NFL previously doled out, were reached by a different process than in Watson’s case. But, many fans, both ardent and casual, will wonder how the discipline Watson received was not greater than at least both Ridley and Hopkins.

The NFL now has to decide whether or not they should file an appeal. They should file one because the perception is that most people do not believe Watson received a significant enough punishment. But the issue is the appeals process makes having a disciplinary officer irrelevant. Having someone like Sue L. Robinson in the role she is, is a great step as discipline needs to be decided and handed down by someone (or a committee of people) outside of the NFL. The issue is the appeals process now needs to be changed as well. All appeals should be heard by another separate, independent person or committee, not the league/Goodell.

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