The dynamic of fandom and Deshaun Watson’s sexual misconduct allegations

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

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When Ben Roethlisberger was accused of raping Andrea McNulty, what I remember the loudest from those days is the lashing out that Pittsburgh fans engaged in online. This came in a few different ways, be it discrediting the accuser, harassing the media that was covering the story, or the more benign “say it ain’t so” tact that heads straight down to denial.

With Deshaun Watson, I don’t see a lot of that. I’m sure some of that is because we are entering into a more civilized era of choosing to believe women when they allege something like this. I’m sure some of it is because the Steelers have bars in big cities with a bigger fanbase than the Texans have as a general concept. I’m sure there’s a racial tint to it, as there usually is. But I think most of it is because Watson has chosen the path of spiritual teamlessness and most of the people who would be in his corner in this way are mainlining Desmond King interception VODs and trying to talk themselves into the Texans winning six games instead of four.

If I put away the analyst hat and put on the fan hat for a paragraph or two, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever experienced. Imagine you spend half of a decade post-Matt Schaub hoping for any kind of good quarterback play, let alone the kind that melts faces like Watson does. What he did in 2020 was something that, paired with that level of team success, is impossibly rare. Also, because of his totally understandable decision to pull his levers to get away from Texans upper management, something that is almost impossible to celebrate properly. While I don’t take it personally in any way that Watson wants out, well, am I supposed to celebrate having what we longed for over many years getting instantly yanked out of Houston the second it appears? Am I supposed to make highlight VODs that will get 300,000 Twitter views while people @ him with their fanboy jersey swap pictures?

Then there’s an accusation. Then there’s three. Then there’s 13 and 10 more women being talked to. It’s very hard to believe that it’s an isolated incident when there’s 13.

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One of the things I struggle with the most as a self-editor is dealing with how I am supposed to treat players objectively and fairly. I know that Vernon Hargreaves has been very bad by almost any empirical or eye-based test that is public knowledge. I was raised on a background of Baseball Prospectus snark. I marinated at Football Outsiders, where we have written sharp-sounding things that have aged dull over the years. (For instance, I remember being called out in a predictions piece a couple of years ago about how I believed Antonio Brown would underperform with the Raiders because he seemed like he’d “left the reservation,” because that probably wasn’t a great choice of words. And I accepted that and asked for an edit.) At the heart of the job, there’s an acknowledgement that certain players aren’t good enough for the role that struggles with the idea that you need to find an entertaining way to say it without actually ravaging the player. It’s a hard line to walk and one that I haven’t always been great at.

So I think Hargreaves is terrible at the job the Texans ask him to do. He’s still in the 99.8th percentile of all football players, ever, by virtue of being an NFL journeyman in 2021. He’s obviously trying his hardest and has impressed someone at some level, because the Texans keep employing him. There’s an overwhelming drumbeat of positivity coming from the team itself about him, because the team isn’t going to put out anything negative about their own employees.

In the pandemic era, if a player doesn’t control the media about themselves by injecting themselves into it, what we get are surface-level insights. I know that Hargreaves laughs a lot when he’s on the field because he was mic’d up that one time last season. But if you asked me if I thought Hargreaves was a good person? I’ve got no idea. In fact, because of the things he talks about and the thought that I’ve seen him take on answers when taking questions, I’d be more inclined to say that Justin Reid is a good person. Only one of those guys called me an asinine punk on Twitter last year, and it wasn’t Hargreaves. But what I know about Hargreaves are some things he did. What I know about Reid is a little closer to a story. That doesn’t mean I’m tight with him, it just means he’s put a personality out there that I can empathize with.

And it is much the same way with Deshaun Watson. I’ve covered him for the better part of three years and the personality he’s put out there has been engaging and driven. He’s not afraid to promise the moon to the fanbase. He’s not afraid to straight up say that the culture needs to change. He’s not afraid to break down why how the Panthers were defending him worked and why how the Falcons were defending him didn’t. Outside of admiring his football prowess and understanding of the game both on and off the field, though, I don’t know much about who he is as a person. I know things he did: buy a house for his mom, start his own foundation, write a book. But there aren’t exactly unguarded 75-minute sessions of him shooting the shit with his friends. He hasn’t dialed me up and told me 10 Things He Hates About Jack Easterby and his entire trade pref list while we’re both cooking dinner.

Ultimately, the feelings that the player creates on the field becomes most of the fan sentiment around them. I think Brennan Scarlett is one of the best people the Texans employed over the past couple of years. I think Whitney Mercilus is a terrific speaker and a 100% team guy. 95% of the conversation I read about either player over the last six months is “thank God he’s gone” or “we’ve got to find a way to get rid of him.” At the same time, the feelings the player creates when they speak add sentiment for me. But those are just two layers in trying to figure out who someone is and what they’re capable of.

So, back to Hargreaves. I try to be kind. I try to wrap criticism of him more towards the people who keep playing him and employing him on this team. I try not to just scream out from the rafters that this guy sucks. But obviously, his level of play impacts a lot of how we feel about him. That’s just natural for anybody; fan, coach, general manager, beat writer, or whatever. If Hargreaves had 12 allegations about anything, he wouldn’t be a Texan right now.

Watson’s play and football mind impacts a lot of how I feel about him, and I think that’s natural. It’s also natural to want to give the benefit of the doubt about something like this when you like someone and want them to succeed.

This is why I’ve mostly tried to practice silence.

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My major reaction to the sexual misconduct accusations of Deshaun Watson has been pretty simple: You have to separate it from football, and you have to listen. His agent said as much last week:

So, simply put, what I’ve been trying to do is listen. While I’m not conceited enough to think that all my Twitter followers are going to agree with a take that I put out there — quite the opposite, as I learn every day on the hellsite — I also don’t really want to create a pulpit about a serious legal matter. The problem is that fans generally just want the exact opposite: immediate conclusions, instantly, and often repeated at them daily.

It’s hard to find a perfect messenger when you’re trying to pick lawyers, and Tony Buzbee is far from that in my eyes. I don’t much enjoy the phrase “Tony Buzbee’s Instagram Account” entering my daily lexicon. I would have voted against him when he ran against Sylvester Turner had I still had an in-city residence to vote from. I think he’s trying to dial up public sentiment against Watson to create pressure for a settlement, knowing that an athlete can’t really undo the reputation hit that comes with this regardless of truth. That very well may be in the best interests of his clients, and I’m not going to put him on blast for it, but I don’t have to like any of it.

I am not a sources guy, and so you should take what I say with a hectare of salt, but my belief is that there’s probably some fire around this much smoke. Not saying that Watson did what was alleged. Not saying that Buzbee necessarily has good evidence about what he is alleging, or that Watson is going down in flames. Just saying that when DMs pop up wherein Watson apologizes to his masseuses about making them feel uncomfortable … that’s not the sort of thing I think would be sent about popping a boner in a session or something. It is also not the sort of thing I’d expect to see be brought out so early in the process, which makes me think there might be a lot more here.

Mike Florio came out the day that this DM surfaced and said it wasn’t a smoking gun, but he meant that from a legal standpoint. The fact that Watson made a woman uncomfortable enough for him to DM her is, to me, evidence that there’s something here.

The TexanSphere is versed with a great number of people with law backgrounds. Steph Stradley, Tim the Battle Red Blog face (who I can never figure out how seriously he takes his anonymity so I’m not going to put his last name up here), Mike Meltser, who has passed the bar in two states. Here’s one thing Meltser had to say about the situation last week:

I think that is the hinge to all of this from a legal standpoint: They’re all civil cases, so far none of the cases I’ve seen have a plaintiff who has gone to the police. There’s not anything at stake here beyond money for them. So, if you are hoping for something like an exoneration, that’s something I’d be interested in knowing the “why?” of.

But if what we’ve seen so far holds true, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if this escalates past the civil courts either.

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One thing I think that society in general — and men in particular — have to get is that who someone is in public isn’t who they are in private. As humans, we generally all have flaws in one way or another. I didn’t publish this piece on Monday because I decided that watching the Houston Cougars play college basketball was more exciting to me than trying to slog through the very difficult thoughts and emotions a piece like this takes, even if it is “my job” and it would be “ideal to put a piece out on Monday.” That is a very small example of me being flawed. There are many, many, other examples.

Who Watson is to us and who he actually is to other people can be different things, and it’s not hard to square. We don’t have the intimacy required to enter that section of his life via football.

It goes without saying that the actions spelled out in this are things that nobody should do. I very much hope Deshaun Watson didn’t do them. I also don’t have a lot of reason to sit here and tell you that he didn’t, what we have right now is simply he said versus she said. There’s a helplessness to the whole thing because all I can do is spectate. This won’t be something that just goes away tomorrow. It is likely to be a pretty protracted process without a settlement — Harris County’s court systems are flowing quite slowly right now. And, well, every day we will likely read something new. All I can do is keep listening and not give in to the base reactions that bubble up.

Regardless of what happens, I think the damage has already been done to Watson’s personal brand and that there will need to be some ownership of that if he wants to move beyond it. If he wants to blanket no comment on these things, fair enough. I think that the members of his fanbase — wherever it winds up being — with a conscience are going to have weigh these lawsuits with a skeptical eye if he doesn’t speak up about it.

This initial statement was extremely strong. But as more and more of these lawsuits have popped up, there hasn’t been much in a way of a response to them. And, keep in mind, with civil suits, the easiest way to end them is to settle them. By coming up with this opening statement, we’re teetering on Not A Great Look territory if he decides to settle, right?

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OK, now that we’ve ridden out 3,500 words to keep anybody but the diehards from getting this far, here are my takes on how this matters as far as commonly asked questions from a football perspective:

Is there a conspiracy?

This came up at Buzbee’s presser last week, where he said he had no idea who Cal McNair was. I can see why this particular front office would inspire people to believe that there’d be a conspiracy about this, but this kind of idea generates a lot of trails. Think of this less from the perspective of the Texans wanting to keep Watson and more from the perspective of an individual employee losing their job, potentially opening themselves up to NFL sanctions, and so on — what incentive do they have to do this? It’s an idea that catches a lot more flies before you think out all the repercussions.

No, I don’t believe there’s any conspiracy here for any NFL teams.

Is Watson’s trade value harmed?

I would say not a lot. Others would say otherwise. Here’s what John McClain wrote about it:

This was notable to me because that’s the first time I’ve seen McClain present that as “the Texans were planning” rather than “the Texans should” — but anyway, I disagree. I do think this will matter some for the very top-end of the market. I don’t think a team will be willing to trade you a Kyler Murray or Justin Herbert for Watson if these lawsuits continue to stick to Watson.

But broadly speaking, if you were getting assets before, I expect the assets to largely be unchanged. I don’t think the Dolphins and Jets can pivot to the Franchise Quarterback Store. You can either get a real thing, or you can roll the dice. It’s not surprising that a lot of the smoke coming from the well-sourced national reporters this week sort of tampered down on trade value expectations, because the people talking about the expectations aren’t the Texans, who have not talked about moving Watson at all. I could still see the Texans making a move that isn’t for enough value, but that was always an option with this front office dynamic. (And that isn’t a shot at Caserio so much as a shot at the volatility that Jack Easterby brings to the front office in my opinion.)

Did this change the timing of a trade?

Kinda depends on what you believed to begin with. I’ve never believed that the Texans were going to move Watson by the draft. Albert Breer wrote that this has frozen the trade market for buyers, too. Which, fair enough, but it takes someone to sell to be willing to buy. There’s really nothing at stake when someone who can’t buy something tells you he won’t buy it.

Where does this leave the Texans?

In an even weirder spot than before, if that were possible. By Texans Cinematic Universing the trade demand, they have run into a spot where that option might be off the table until some of these charges are settled or fought in court. And then there’s the possibility that Watson may be put on commissioner’s leave or whatever other form of self-justice the NFL wants to throw out there. It might be a cloud that hangs over this franchise for a while.

I’m actually more curious about where it leaves Watson. As recently as three months ago he was one of the brightest young stars in the NFL, nobody had a bad word to say about him. Now between these allegations and the trade demand, that public persona that he carefully crafted is being torn apart. I’m very interested to see what the reaction — if there is any — will be beyond how he and his lawyer respond specifically to the charges.

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Keep listening. I really hope this turns out to be a non-story, but the more I’ve listened, the harder it has been to believe that.

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3 Replies to “The dynamic of fandom and Deshaun Watson’s sexual misconduct allegations”

  1. Here’s my conspiracy take with no other facts other than my own thoughts on what I believe to have went down: I think the Texans were very aware of the conduct and kept it quiet. That whole “Jack Easterby calling Deshaun’s mom” might have some merit. The timing and amount of allegations to come forward, to me, feels like the Texans were like “so you’re not playing for us? You’re gonna do us like that? Ok, bet.” Hush money isn’t the same when it hurts the Texans as when it benefits the Texans.

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