As a New York Knicks fan I have a lot empathy for Cleveland Browns fans. It’s not the most enjoyable fan experience year in and year out knowing that your season is essentially over before it begins. The Knicks haven’t won a championship since 1973 and the Browns have never won a Super Bowl. Both franchises have been plagued by poor ownership, poor coaching, and poor player personnel management over the years. So what keeps you hanging on as a fan? Other than a little insanity, it’s those occasional glimmers of hope known as winning. You simply hold out hope that “this year will be different”, that the chips will fall into place, that the odds say you’re overdue for a break. Unfortunately however, the real world does not work like that. But these past few months, I couldn’t empathize with a Browns fan even if I tried. Simply put, it has been one of the most confusing and disturbing off-seasons in the history of the franchise.
When Browns owner Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns in 2012 he promised that there would be big changes. After all, from 1990 to 2012 the Browns had a whopping 3 winning seasons. Rebuilding a team takes time however, and between 2015-2017 the Browns won only 4 games in 3 seasons. The Browns were whiffing time and again in the draft including selecting maligned Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel as their franchise quarterback. But after the 2017 season, Cleveland began selecting impact players who looked capable of turning the franchise around. Players like Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Denzel Ward, Jedrick Wills and polarizing quarterback Baker Mayfield. Sure Mayfield has his flaws, but as starting quarterback he led the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020 including a victory over their division rivals in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the Browns first playoff win since 1994 and their first playoff road victory since 1969. Safe to say expectations were high going into last season. Unfortunately though, the Browns took a step back in 2021. Mayfield played through multiple injuries including a knee contusion and a partially torn labrum. He was sacked a career high 43 times in the pocket and the Browns finished 3rd in their division at 8-9. Mayfield had a falling out with a number of teammates and it seemed like the franchise was losing patience with him.
Billionaires are not used to losing. Certainly not someone like Jimmy Haslam who is Chairman of Pilot Flying J. Sound familiar? If you’ve been on a road trip anywhere in the country you’ve probably seen the giant fuel and truck stops somewhere off the interstate. While they are one of the largest privately owned companies in the country, Pilot Flying J has not been without their share of controversy. In April of 2013 the FBI revealed a 5 year fraud scheme where the company failed to provide promised fuel discounts to customers and were forced to pay $92 million in restitution and another $85 million to settle lawsuits. Although he was CEO, Haslam denied any knowledge of the scheme. In 2018 the company’s annual revenue reported was $21.2 billion dollars. Haslam’s net worth is estimated to be in the $4 billion dollar range.
By most metrics Haslam has been a very successful business man. We’ll get back to him in a bit. But being a successful owner of a professional sports franchise and a successful business man are two entirely different things, especially in the NFL. The NFL is not built for sustained dynasties, it is built for parity. There is a set salary cap which this season is set at $208.2 million for each team, or in other words, the team can spend up to $208.2 million in salaries for their players. But not only is there a salary cap, there is a salary floor, or minimum that teams must spend as well. That floor is $182.5 million.
But what about that sustained dynasty part? You may be looking at the upper echelon teams like the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Bucs, or thinking of teams in the past like the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. Well that leads us to the only true equalizer in the NFL – the quarterback position. Franchise quarterbacks are very rare. There is a reason there are so few of them. And if you look at most franchise quarterbacks in today’s NFL, they were not #1 overall picks – Tom Brady was selected 199th overall, Aaron Rodgers 24th. More recently, the 2017 draft saw Patrick Mahomes go 10th overall, behind players like QB Mitchell Trubisky who went 2nd overall and WR John Ross who went 9th. But two picks after Mahomes, another franchise quarterback, this one out of Clemson, was selected by the Houston Texans.
After showing some glimmers of greatness his rookie season in only 6 games, it became quickly apparent that Deshaun Watson had all of the tools to be great, and that greatness was realized his next 3 seasons. Watson combined a strong arm, running ability and elite pocket presence skills to lead the Texans to 2 playoff appearances. He reached 3 Pro Bowls and led the NFL in passing yards in 2020. There were some analysts who even compared his throwing style to former Houston Oilers legend Warren Moon. In the brief history of the Texans, Watson was by far their most talented quarterback and certainly looked like a player who would be the cornerstone of the franchise for years to come. Off the field, Watson was heavily involved in the community. He created The Deshaun Watson Foundation to support families and youth in underserved communities. He donated one of his game paychecks to 3 NRG Stadium cafeteria employees who were affected by Hurricane Harvey. Like Jimmy Haslam in the business world, Watson was a successful NFL player by every metric.
Despite leading the league in numerous offensive categories, the Texans finished 4-12 in 2020. DeAndre Hopkins, one of Watson’s favorite targets had been traded to Arizona and head coach Bill O’Brien was fired during the season after an 0-4 start. Trade rumors began to swirl. Watson’s relationship with the Texans was quickly souring. Immediately following the season Watson requested a trade citing poor franchise management. However that story would be nothing to the firestorm that was about to take place.
On March 16th 2021 a civil lawsuit from a massage therapist was filed against Watson, claiming inappropriate contact initiated by Watson taking place during the massage. Watson defended himself immediately saying “I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect.” The days that followed seemed to contradict that statement, and by April 5th Watson was facing 22 lawsuits. The conduct he was accused of was both disturbing and seemed to follow a distinct pattern. The accusations inferred that Watson would reach out to a masseuse through his DM’s, set up a time and location of his choosing, refuse to cover up during the massage, and then attempt to engage the plaintiff into some type of inappropriate activity. How inappropriate? Let’s just say nothing that I would feel comfortable writing…that bad. Some of the accusers identified themselves publicly, others stayed out of the public spotlight out of fear and embarrassment. There are other accusers who have come public who have not filed a civil lawsuit, but have spoken up to bring awareness to the disturbing situation. On March 11, 2022 a grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, although he still faces his all of his civil lawsuits. It should be noted however that a recent New York Times article by Jenny Vrentas revealed that Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin spoke with the Harris County prosecutor handling the Watson case over 12 times on the phone and shared over two dozen text messages leading up to the grand juries hearing the cases. The same New York Times article revealed much more, including that Watson met at least 66 women for massages in a 17-month period. Out of the 66 women, now 24 have sued him including two new suits in the last week. Others have filed criminal charges and chose not to sue.
So despite all of this, despite not requesting to interview even one of Watson’s accusers, and despite claiming they did due diligence and thorough research, what did the Browns and Jimmy Haslam do? They traded for Deshaun Watson on March 18th 2022. They traded 3 first round draft picks to the Houston Texans and immediately signed Deshaun Watson to a five-year deal. The reward? $230 million, the largest contract in NFL history. Read that part again. The LARGEST in NFL history. Haslam and his wife exclaimed: “We got very comfortable with Deshaun Watson the person.” As parents of 2 daughters and grandparents of 6, it’s almost an unfathomable statement. Haslam let his desire to win trump common sense. Not only that, but he doubled down on his excuses why.
I’ve also heard those who continually defend him…
“They’re after his money.”
“You think they’re all telling the truth?”
“What did they think was going to happen?”
“Why didn’t they just leave?”
To this I would just say, stop. I understand the need for nuance and objectivity when looking at these types of situations. However if you read the articles from the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the Houston Chronicle, etc., it is abundantly apparent that this is much more thank smoke and mirrors. And please remember, these are just those who have come forward. Many victims don’t for the reasons outlined above. Also, most professional athletes keep their circles very small when it comes to their training and nutrition needs. The NFL teams also employ some of the most talented trainers and support staff in the world. This is someone who saw 66 DIFFERENT women in 17 months. Only women, almost all through direct messages on Instagram. This is someone who plays the most important position for the most lucrative sport in the world – and he’s going to just let 66 strangers massage areas that are critical to his performance as an athlete? I don’t buy it.
So what needs to be done? Simply put, it’s time for the NFL to do something that it has struggled to do in the past with personal conduct issues – the right thing. The NFL is the most popular of all professional sports leagues by a long shot. That’s not opinion, that’s just fact. It generates $16 billion in revenue each year with only 267 games played. That doesn’t count all of the secondary revenue that the league brings in – think about bars, stores, restaurants, cable networks, etc. Why is the league so popular? There are many factors but amongst the biggest is the fact that the league has mass appeal with women as well as men. That appeal has been tested on occasion. The league created it’s player conduct policy in 2007, where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has the power to suspend players for both on and off the field actions that can be harmful to the league’s reputation. The track record of these suspensions as it relates to conduct against women have been poor to say the least. Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension for two separate sexual assault allegations was reduced from 6 to 4 games in 2010. Ray Rice was only suspended for 2 games in 2014 for domestic violence, when TMZ posted a video of Rice dragging his fiancée out of an elevator in Atlantic City. When a video of Rice punching his fiancée in the face emerged, his contract was terminated, but by the Ravens, not the NFL. Greg Hardy saw his suspension for domestic violence against his girlfriend drop from 10 games to 4 despite being arrested for assault and communicating threats, including throwing her into furniture and strangling her.
This time around the NFL and Goodell need to do the right thing and send the right message. Watson should be suspended for the entire 2022 season immediately - as a start. And while the NFL can’t interfere with contracts between players and clubs, Goodell should look into some type of punishment for Haslam and the Browns who clearly did not do their due diligence. They looked for the easy way out and turned a blind eye to mountains of evidence. The NFL should make a definitive statement that women are valued not just as consumers, but as human beings. Quick and decisive action would be a small step towards that notion.
Browns fans deserve a team they can be proud of. If the NFL fails to act soon, the Browns legacy of losing will be nothing compared to the legacy of embarrassment that lies ahead.