After the NFL announced that it and the NFLPA had settled on a suspension and fine for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had been accused by over 20 women of sexual misconduct and/or assault, Browns co-owner Dee Haslam said at a press conference that “I hope the conversation comes to, ‘What can we do going forward to get the information out to help other people? There is a huge opportunity to talk about the major issues in our country.”
If that’s true, the NFL and broadcast partner Amazon punted pretty strongly during the Thursday Night Football game between the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s not until late in the second quarter that the broadcast returns from commercial with a shot of Browns co-owner Jimmy Haslam while announcer Al Michaels launches into some carefully worded thoughts on the Watson situation.
Here's Al Michaels' and Kaylee Hartung's Deshaun Watson suspension discussion during Amazon's Thursday Night Football broadcast. pic.twitter.com/XjT8WeIn9P
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 23, 2022
“Jimmy Haslam and his wife Dee own the Cleveland Browns,” said Michaels. “Of course, a lot of news. The biggest news maybe in the offseason was the trade with Houston for Deshaun Watson. Suspended 11 games, fined $5 million bucks, violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He can return to the facility for meetings and conditioning only October 10. Then a month later, he’s eligible to return to practice with the team. On the 28th, [he] can return to the active roster. And the first time he could play would be December 4, Week 13, potential first game against the team that traded him, the Texans.”
At this point, if you didn’t know why Watson had been suspended and fined and why he wasn’t with the Browns, you would be hard-pressed to understand. Obviously, this is by design and probably comes from way above Michaels’ (very hefty) pay grade. He’s almost certainly been coached not to mention things during this segment. However, when Michaels does start delving into details, he discusses the headaches that Watson’s guaranteed contract created for other NFL owners and not anything to do with the women who accused Watson of coercive and lewd sexual behavior.
“A tremendously controversial deal on so many levels obviously. A lot of the owners around the league weren’t happy about it. And a 230 million dollar fully guaranteed contract for the man who, they hope, is a franchise quarterback.”
After an interlude to call the play on the field, Al sends it down to sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung, who starts talking about the settlement that Watson agreed to and, at one point, starts sounding like she’s reading off a script with a gun to her head.
“Al, part of Watson’s settlement requires that he receive treatment for his behavior. That’s ongoing,” said Hartung. “But the most vital condition to his reinstatement is that his clinician, who was approved by the league and the player’s union, has final determination that Watson’s faithfully and fully participated in this treatment plan. If that happens, this element calls for reinstatement in accordance with the timeline defined in his suspension. And it stipulated that he must only use team massage therapists for the remainder of his career.”
We cannot overstate how much work the phrase “his behavior” is doing there.
The presumably prepared statement from NFL lawyers that Hartung is reading does its damndest to make it sound like this NFL-approved clinician might not sign off on Watson’s scheduled return, a made-for-TV matchup with the Houston Texans, as planned. NFL viewers can make up their own minds about the odds of that happening, regardless of whether or not Watson has discovered what empathy is at that point.
Putting the cherry on top of the whole segment is Michaels making a rather glib aside about Watson’s massive contract.
“Kaylee, if $230 million guaranteed doesn’t motivate you to do the things you need to do, I give up,” said Michaels, who was presumably expecting boothmate Kirk Herbstreit to chime in or react in some way. To his credit, Herbstreit is a ghost, leaving the awkward silence to say more than the entire discussion that preceded it.
Michaels then tried out a bit about the Browns quarterback history to steer the conversation towards something more palatable but even that rang hollow.
“The Browns, they had Johnny Manziel, that didn’t work out. They drafted Baker Mayfield, he’s with Carolina now. They have Watson, if that doesn’t work, then what? Just exhume Otto Graham.”- Al Michaels
— Doug Rush (@TheDougRush) September 23, 2022
Look, we can all understand that this is not a topic the NFL wants to talk about anymore. They said as much in their announcement of the final suspension, which they referred to as a “conclusion.” And there are almost certainly a lot of people tuning in to watch a football game who would rather not hear the particulars of sexual misconduct and assault allegations.
But that’s exactly why they should have been discussed in greater detail or specificity. By returning the sordid details of what Watson did to the shadows and caking them in vague innuendo, you absolve him, the Browns, and the NFL of the shame they should bear for how all of this played out.
You shouldn’t get to talk about why Watson isn’t here tonight without explaining why. You shouldn’t get to mention Watson’s “behavior” without explaining what that entailed. You shouldn’t get to talk about how he’s receiving treatment without explaining what he is being treated for. You shouldn’t be saying the words “it stipulated that he must only use team massage therapists for the remainder of his career,” a truly bonkers statement to have to say out loud about a grown man, without explaining why that’s the case.
Of course, no one comes away from any of this surprised. We all know how the sausage is made and we all know how important it is for Amazon to be in bed with the NFL. There’s only so much boat-rocking they’re going to do, especially as this deal starts paying dividends.
But, you know, just once, you’d love to see people in these positions have a little bit of backbone. Showcase some kind of moral center. Use their platform to try and make a real statement about what you will stand for and what you won’t.
Let’s return for a second to that presumably very true sentiment from Dee Haslam up top. “I hope the conversation comes to, ‘What can we do going forward to get the information out to help other people? There is a huge opportunity to talk about the major issues in our country.”
You had your perfect huge opportunity to start the conversation, Dee. And Jimmy. And Amazon. And the NFL.
But, as we all expected, you just punted.