The NFL suspended Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson for six games. Nice try.

After an NFL umpire gave Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson a ridiculously short six-game suspension despite dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct, it has become popular to compare his suspension to other previous offenses and find it almost hilariously meager.

Six games for Watson? Vontaze Burfict lost twice as many games due to fierce hits on the pitch. DeAndre Hopkins missed just as many games for trace amounts of PEDs detected in its system. Josh Gordon and Darren Waller each missed an entire season for smoking weed. Tom Brady, quite famous, got two fewer bans for dumping soccer balls to make them easier to throw and catch. How can that be? Does the NFL say these offenses are less serious than alleged serial sexual harassment?

The NFL doesn’t say that. The thing to remember is that the NFL never says anything.

But of course the NFL doesn’t say that. The thing to remember is that the NFL is never say anything

There was a time when the NFL tried to avoid suspending players without an actual conviction in court: That’s why they didn’t suspend quarterback Michael Vick in 2007 because of his dogfighting ring – until he actually pleaded guilty. But social media has changed that. But then the NFL, particularly after the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal eight years ago, realized that a failure to proactively punish players would create a serious public relations problem. So the League began to enforce its own justice.

The problem here is obvious: the NFL is not a criminal justice system; it’s a sports league. Therefore, its suspensions and punishments, as they exist, are not intended to be “fair” or prudent, or to set any precedent. Their sole purpose is to get the league through the PR crisis it’s going through. People mad at Burfict’s headhunting? Give him 12 games! Some league owners angry that players are on drugs? Ban them for a year! NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell worried about Deflategate scandal? Give Brady four games! The penalties were essentially fiats via press release, a way to get everyone out of the league so they could play games again… and mint money, of course. Expecting consistency from such a half-hearted system is a mistake.


It’s also one of the main reasons the league hired a judge to arbitrate in the first place: League officials hoped that retired federal judge Sue Robinson would take the decision out of their hands. One can argue with Robinson’s final decision in Watson’s case – this suspension sure feels light to me! – but a comparison with other decisions is completely wrong. The NFL tries to distance itself from such penalties. It has no sense of moral arbitration.

But Robinson wasn’t there for those other earlier decisions. If it had been, perhaps a pattern of punishment would have emerged. Instead, Goodell was the judge – and jury and executioner. If anything, this case is intended almost as a transition to a more “impartial” form of punishment that isn’t solely at the whim of Goodell and his PR team.

It is worth noting that on matters as serious and repugnant as what Watson is accused of, no suspension can seem appropriate. You have read the allegations, and you don’t want to look at him at all—you want him gone forever. But that’s not realistic — remember, he hasn’t been charged with a crime, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and most civil cases have since been settled. In addition, the NFL Players Association has recorded that it would challenge any suspension of Watson that is too long. (That it goes along with this one is therefore quite revealing.)

The NFL is trying to set a standard. You might disagree with this standard: I know I do. But it is a other norm. The league is also trying to de-follow public opinion as much as it used to. At first glance, that’s probably a good thing. Public opinion is biased and vacillating. What’s clear is that the NFL has never been very good at policing the bad behavior of its stars. These stupid punishments in the past are proof of that. But that they were so bad doesn’t make this decision any worse. That decision alone is bad enough. The NFL suspended Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson for six games. Nice try.

Fry Electronics Team

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