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Other View: Deshaun Watson's sexual misconduct case has forced the NFL to change its ways

The next test is how vigorously the NFL pursues its appeal to deter future player malfeasance and demonstrate the league has finally evolved.

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Deshaun Watson (4) of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during the Cleveland Browns' mandatory minicamp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on June 14, 2022, in Berea, Ohio.
Nick Cammett/Getty Images/TNS
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The National Football League might actually be showing signs of positive change after years of shoulder-shrugging and looking the other way when players are caught engaging in lewd or abusive actions, drunken driving or other outrages. Until last week, when it came to holding the line for moral virtue against the NFL’s pursuit of money, morality got sacked every time.

The turning point may have come in the case of Deshaun Watson, the star quarterback of the Cleveland Browns and beneficiary of a guaranteed, $230 million, five-year contract. With that much star power and that much money riding on Watson’s every appearance, the sports-consuming public might well have assumed the guy could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and get away with it in the NFL’s eyes. At least, that’s the way it worked in the past.

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More than 50 women — massage therapists with serious careers — were allegedly harassed or abused by Watson while he was quarterback of the Houston Texans. He could have used a therapist employed by the Texans but chose not to. Lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct resulted in 25 of those cases, with all but one now having been settled out of court. The Houston Texans reached settlements with 30 women.

Watson, 26, deserved heavy fines and at least a yearlong suspension, but an arbitrator decided to make him sit out for only six games and pay no fines. The NFL, apparently after weighing heavy public criticism, announced last week that it would appeal in hopes of getting a stiffer punishment.

Watson seemed to think that professional massage therapists are the same as those who appear in online prostitution ads. He typically surfed on Instagram for women — not men. When they arrived, he allegedly wore nothing but a towel and would instruct or nudge the therapist to focus around his genitals. He allegedly tried to get one to perform oral sex on him. Some of the women packed up and left quickly. Others didn’t have a chance to leave before Watson reached his, well, point of satisfaction.

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He repeated this pattern so many times, and generated so many complaints, that the Texans devised a nondisclosure agreement for his massage therapists to sign, The New York Times reported. Cleveland Browns owners issued a statement saying he was “remorseful,” though it’s not clear why, given his own spokesman’s denials of the allegations.

Who’s to be believed? It’s his word against his 50 or so accusers.

The NFL and the players’ union hired Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge, to hear the case. Robinson confirmed that an unremorseful Watson engaged in unwanted sexual contact that she termed “predatory” and “egregious,” yet she issued a slap-on-the-wrist penalty.

The next test is how vigorously the NFL pursues its appeal to deter future player malfeasance and demonstrate the league has finally evolved.

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