The NFL first devised the concept of paid leave as a device for getting controversial players off the field at a time when games are being played. In the offseason, the league generally if not exclusively has avoided using the Commissioner Exempt list, since there are no football activities from which to bar a player. (In 2019, Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill voluntarily stayed away from offseason program while an investigation occurred regarding an injury suffered by his son. Hill was cleared, and he returned for training camp.)
Fewer than seven years after the NFL first adopted paid leave as a device for handling players who face allegations that have not yet resulted in a criminal conviction, a civil verdict, or some other disposition, the league faces a situation that cannot be ignored until football activities commence later in the year. The 22 civil cases and at least two criminal complaints against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, coupled with the possibility of more allegations and a potential federal sex trafficking investigation, require the NFL to do something other than issue a perfunctory statement that says, basically, “We take it very seriously but we’re going to wait and see what happens.”
Tuesday’s press conference gave inherent credibility to the claims against Watson. Although he still has all privileges, presumptions, and protections in court, the league created paid leave as a way to handle players who are both presumed innocent and embroiled in a situation that, by its mere existence, reflects poorly on the NFL. These allegations, by their mere existence, reflect poorly on the NFL.
The Personal Conduct Policy itself emerged from the league’s broader P.R. interests, and every decision made when it comes to applying the policy takes the anticipated P.R. reaction into account. As a general matter, the league believes that there’s no reason to put a player on paid leave during the offseason because the mere act of doing so creates a major headline that will ricochet throughout the Internet and social media.
At some point, the rule must yield to an exception. In this case, an exception should be made. There are too many claims that have been filed, too many fronts on which the legal fights will be waged, too many blunders from Watson’s camp in the court of public opinion, where the battle in many respects already has been lost.
At this point, the league’s failure to act fairly can be interpreted as an unwillingness to take the matter seriously. At this point, a statement isn’t enough. At this point, the latest statement from the league — which uses the words “deeply disturbing” when describing the allegations — means nothing unless the league flips the switch that the league has specifically created for situations like this.
Placement on paid leave won’t simply protect The Shield against attack from those who would say the league isn’t doing enough in response to this landslide of legal issues targeting Watson. It also could be the wakeup call Watson needs to realize that, regardless of whether he believes he did nothing wrong, a reckoning is necessary. A resolution is necessary. A sense that justice has been done for all 22 of the alleged victims is necessary.
Digging in and fighting only works if you’re 100-percent certain that you’re right, and that you can prove it. Absent that level of clarity and justifiable confidence, the best move is to stop fighting, to accept responsibility, to endure the consequences, and to seek true redemption. At this point, placement on the Commissioner Exempt list may be the only thing that gets Watson to realize that it’s time to stop challenging the credibility of the victims and to start making things right, for his 22 accusers and ultimately for himself.