When Darryl Rogers, the Detroit Lions‘ ill-fated football coach from the 1980s, learned that his owner planned to keep him despite three straight losing seasons, he posed this question: “What’s a guy got to do to get fired around here?”
I found myself asking that same thing when I read that Deshaun Watson had just been traded to the Cleveland Browns, who rewarded him with a five-year, $230 million contract, all of which is reportedly guaranteed.
That means if Watson comes out next year, breaks both legs in the first game, throws nothing but interceptions when he returns, gets permanently benched or becomes a cancer in the locker room, he still gets all that money.
Two hundred and thirty million.
Now, if you’re not a football fan, you might assume Watson is a sure thing. A can’t miss. After all, if you’re plunking down nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, he’d better be reliable, dependable, and, as your quarterback, an admirable face of your franchise.
But that’s not Deshaun Watson. The 26-year-old has been accused by no less than 22 women of everything from lewd and coercive behavior to sexual assault. Watson’s pattern was allegedly to hire female massage therapists, many off the internet, have them come to his home or where he was staying, and, depending on the claims, do anything from exposing himself, grabbing their genitals, or seeking sexual acts.
One claim said he completely undressed and refused to cover up, telling the therapist to massage his private parts.
Another called him a “serial predator,” claiming he locked the door behind him and forced her to touch him inappropriately.
The two claims of sexual assault included Watson pressuring the women to perform oral sex.
Now, remember, this is not one woman making these claims. It’s not two or three.
If 22 women, from various parts of the country, accuse a man of inappropriate behavior, it’s at least going to give his employer pause, isn’t it?
The height of hypocrisy
For a while, that’s what happened in Houston, where Watson played his first four years. When the charges came out, the team’s general manager said they would handle the situation “one day at a time.” Watson was never cut, but was ruled out of every game for the 2021 season.
So he didn’t play a down. Despite this, he was paid his full salary of $10.5 million, a pretty good paycheck for doing nothing.
Never mind that if most people were accused of inappropriate sexual actions by 22 women, they would be out on the street. Pressure from management, other employees, or outside groups would surely result in termination or resignation.
But because Watson was young, had star talent, and played a vital position, he didn’t pay that price.
It gets worse. Less than two weeks ago, Watson was cleared of nine criminal charges that were part of the claims against him. A grand jury found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to go forward criminally. Once that happened, despite the fact that the 22 civil charges were still out there, NFL teams perked up like a vampire when the sun goes down.
Within days there were teams chomping at the bit to trade for Watson. The New Orleans Saints suddenly wanted him. So did the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. Cleveland Browns executives, despite having a quarterback named Baker Mayfield whom they drafted with the No. 1 pick four years ago, flew to Houston to woo Watson. They were all but drooling.
None of these teams seemed to care about all those sexual behavior accusations against Watson, as long as they weren’t criminal. This is the great hypocrisy of the NFL. If a marginal player commits an offense against a woman, he’s likely history. But if a star player can stay out of jail, he’ll find a home.
This is the same league that has players wear slogans on their helmets like “Stop Hate,” “Inspire Change” and “Say Their Names.”
Hypocrisy is too small a word.
Who’s really being canceled?
In the end, Cleveland shamelessly won the sweepstakes by trading a barrel full of draft picks, including three first-rounders, for Watson, whom they promptly rewarded with that $230 million guaranteed contract.
The ink was barely dry on the grand jury document.
Watson was set for life.
Now, here’s where this becomes more than a sports story. For several years now, we’ve been sitting on high horses, shooting down those we don’t agree with, condemning them for the slightest offense, wiping out their livelihoods, their friendships, their social standing — all because we don’t like something they said or did. We call for people to be erased, and we sometimes do it with a touch of glee, like the mean kid who smiles when an ant runs away before stomping the creature to death.
It’s been called cancel culture, and even the traditionally liberal New York Times has now called America out on it. In a recent editorial called “America Has a Free Speech Problem,” the newspaper decries our habit of knee-jerk shutdowns, liberals and conservatives alike, stating “When public discourse in America is narrowed, it becomes harder to answer … urgent questions we face as a society.”
But what makes cancel culture truly outrageous isn’t just the fear it instills in free speech, but the capriciousness of its consequences. Some folks lose everything. Some barely pay a price.
Think of all the people in the past few years who have been fired for tweets, or tasteless jokes. Think of the #MeToo surge that brought down countless public and private figures accused of sleazy comments or unwelcome hugs.
Watson, accused of far worse than that, once took part in a video directed at the NFL over police brutality. It stated: “We will not be silenced.”
Don’t you think those 22 women feel that way? Can you imagine their reaction when they saw Watson cashing in with a king’s ransom — while their civil claims haven’t even been settled?
At the very least, Watson, who doesn’t deny hiring these women or even having sexual relations with some of them — which he deemed “consensual” — has behaved like a creep.
Do you want creepy behavior as the face of your team?
Apparently yes, if you think it’ll help you win. Cleveland, which should be embarrassed by this, obviously does. What’s a guy got to do to get fired around here? Very little, if you’re a regular person. But if you’re a star quarterback, it’s damn near impossible.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.