NFL’s PED Suspension Policy Should Force League’s Hand on Watson Appeal
Can the NFL really justify having the same suspension length for PED use and more than 20 cases of alleged sexual assault?
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson recommended that Deshaun Watson should be suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy after investigating sexual assault claims made against him by multiple women. In her ruling, Robinson referred to the Cleveland quarterback’s behavior as “predatory” and “egregious,” but she determined that Watson had committed “non-violent” sexual assault. (Seems impossible.) Both Watson and the NFL have until Thursday to appeal the ruling. Watson will not and the NFL is still mulling it over.
On Tuesday, the NFL announced it had suspended New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kawaan Baker for six games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. A seventh-round draft pick in 2021, the 23-year-old out of South Alabama appeared in just two games for the Saints and was generally relegated to the team’s practice squad last season.
As of now, Baker and Watson, who has maintained he is innocent and that any sex was consensual, are due to miss the same amount of time to start next season and, due to the way the Browns structured their quarterback’s contract because of the likelihood he would be suspended, lose similar amounts of money from their paychecks. (Suspended players lose a pro-rated amount of their pay for each week they miss. Watson is due to make $1.035 million for the 2022 season while Baker is on the books for $705,000.)
Given the similarity of the discipline for the two players and the disparity between what they have each been accused of doing, the NFL almost has to go through with an appeal of Watson’s suspension in order to save face. Banning Baker for six games for potentially harming himself and Watson for the same amount of time for potentially causing severe harm to multiple others is not even remotely close to being just or giving the appearance of being so.
If the league does follow through with an appeal and seek an increase in Watson’s suspension, the matter will be resolved by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or a person he designates. That’s the same Goodell who just suspended Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for tampering with Tom Brady in 2019, ’20 and ’21 while he was under contract with other teams. Ross is suspended until mid-October. Or, viewed another way, the equivalent of six games.
“I think the opportunity is certainly there for the commissioner to question whether the punishment was sufficient, given the severity of the conduct that was alleged and also proven,” Gabriel Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University, told The Washington Post. “I think there is a clear path for the commissioner, as articulated in the CBA, to increase the suspension.”
If the commissioner wants the public to take the league’s stance that violence toward women is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated by the NFL even remotely seriously, there better be an appeal and he better lay down the law. If Goodell doesn’t and the discipline remains the same, it’ll be hard to view it as anything other than that the NFL sees PED use, tampering and sexual assault as equal misdeeds. UPDATE: It appears Goodell will at least have the chance.
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