Just two weeks ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league’s investigation into Deshaun Watson would be dropped.
The investigation into allegations of sexual assault and misconduct of varying degrees was nearing its 15th month, the league had secured interviews with more than half of the women with pending civil cases against Watson, and investigators had questioned the Cleveland Browns quarterback for three days and these concluded sessions on a note suggesting a decision was near.
“I think we’re nearing the end of the investigation period,” Goodell said on May 24. “Then it will be dealt with by our Disciplinary Officer.”
Since then: A Real Sports report with interviews with two of Watson’s accusers, two new lawsuits that brought Watson’s pending litigation to a total of 24 cases, and a New York Times report that thoroughly detailed claims about the quarterback’s conduct and allegations contains against those who may have made it possible.
That is a lot of of information in two weeks, although it’s safe to assume that League investigators had already uncovered some of the allegations that the public is only now becoming familiar with. But it also leads to fair questions.
Could Roger Goodell put Deshaun Watson on the commissioner’s exemption list?
If even a small amount of new information has been brought to the attention of the NFL in the past two weeks, can it reasonably close the investigation when it appears Watson’s civil case count could potentially continue to rise in the coming months? And if the League cannot reasonably complete its investigation, should Goodell use the commissioner’s exemption list, which is a more comprehensive tool than many have formulated?
For its part, the league is not commenting on the investigation other than to say it is ongoing. This has been the entire party line for the last 15 months.
As for the commissioner’s exception list, the NFL says nothing at all. That can be absorbed in two ways: either the league defaults on what Goodell said on March 29 – when he said Watson would not be put on the exception list – or it means the league is keeping its options open, if circumstances may change.
Here’s what Goodell said about Watson and the exemption list in March:
“The civil cases have been in play for the past year,” Goodell said. “The only thing that has changed is that the criminal element has at least been resolved and that was an important element in relation to the Commissioner’s exemption list as discussed with the Players Association. …if the criminal [complaints] had acted, that would most likely have released the Commissioner. I think at this point the civil process in and of itself would not do that. If there’s a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy…it’s more than likely [will] triggers some kind of discipline in some way.”
In plain language, so everyone understands: Goodell is propping up the exemption list — which is basically a suspension with pay — as a tool that would only be used if the season got underway and a criminal investigation was conducted against Watson. Apparently, in his own words, he doesn’t count civil cases as triggering the exemption list as a necessity. It is noteworthy that he also says “as discussed with the Players Association”.
But here’s exactly what the exception list rule states in terms of when it can be applied:
“First, when a player is formally charged with a violent crime, i.e. accused of injuring or threatening another person with physical violence or a weapon, committing a sexual assault with violence, or committing sexual assault on a person who is unable to give consent, engaged in any other behavior that poses a real threat to the safety or well-being of another person, or engaged in animal cruelty. The formal indictment may take the form of an indictment by a jury, an indictment by a prosecutor, or an indictment in a criminal court.
“Second, if an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this policy by engaging in any of the conduct listed above, he may act if the circumstances and evidence so warrant. This decision does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence and is not guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal proceeding.”
Focus on the line “may have violated this policy by engaging in any of the above conduct.”
After that motion, and based on the interviews and evidence the League received, Goodell basically has a checklist of questions about what Watson “possibly” did:
“May” he have used physical force or a weapon to injure or threaten another person?
“May” he have committed sexual assault with violence or sexual assault on a person who is unable to consent?
“May” he have engaged in other behavior that poses a real threat to the safety or well-being of another person?
If investigators determine that Watson “possibly” breached any of these standards, Goodell has an argument for placing Watson on the Commissioner’s exemption list. And the rule essentially proves this point with a follow-up statement written in clear legalese:
“This decision does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence and is not guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal proceeding.”
All of this could of course also be a contentious point.
The latest revelations may not be new to the NFL
It stands to reason that a multibillion-dollar company like the NFL would have the cash and investigative skills to have already sourced everything and more, the New York Times published on Tuesday. It also stands to reason that the same NFL investigation may have already secured interviews with the two accusers who appeared on Real Sports, as well as the two women who filed the 23rd and 24th lawsuits. Not to mention the league could have obtained copies of all statements completed by Watson, parts of which have now been leaked to a handful of news organizations.
If the league already has these things in hand, Goodell’s opinion on the commissioner’s exemption list and Watson’s future remains sane. But only because the league knows everything that goes on in public space and much more from their own work.
If so, the investigation will enter its final phase and a determination will be made as to whether or not Watson violated the league’s personal conduct guidelines.
If the NFL has been caught off guard over the past two weeks, if there are elements in the lawsuits or reports that are new information, a quick decision on Watson’s NFL future will reflect the quarterback’s legal future.
More complicated every week.