Watson Settlement Leaves Cleveland Browns Fumbling

Following the settlement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s punishment for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy, the Cleveland team has been left to clean up the mess Watson created. Its performance hasn’t been impressive.

Since March 2021, 24 female massage therapists have sued Watson alleging they were sexually harassed and assaulted during their sessions. Amid the accusations and earlier this year, he was traded from the Houston Texans to the Browns. Watson has now received an 11-game suspension along with a fine of $5 million and mandatory mental-health training. This was an increase after the uproar over an initial penalty of six games and no fine.

This has left fans, media and other players frustrated over his seemingly still-too-light penalty. Despite Watson’s and the Browns’ hopes that the allegations would be buried under the piles of sports news we see every day, they have remained in the public eye and are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. And Watson (pictured) continues to maintain his innocence.

Social Media

Some on both sides have taken to social media to express their outrage over the settlement. Among those asserting dismay is former Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor University Robert Griffin III, who tweeted:

“The NFL had an opportunity to show it had learned from its ugly history on standing up for Women with this Deshaun Watson case and IT FAILED. 11 games and a 5 million dollar fine doesn’t fit what he was accused of doing and found to have done by [arbitrator] Judge Sue L. Robinson. Sickening.”

Watson and the league are not the only ones receiving backlash. The Browns, known for being (let’s face it) a dysfunctional team, once again find themselves in a hole they can’t dig themselves out of. The Cleveland organization hasn’t done much to help its image in the face of the negative attention that followed Watson from Houston to the Browns — they keep dropping the ball in their attempts to move forward in the wake of the scandal. Or think of a quarterback scrambling farther into his own endzone.

Press Conference

During an August 18 press conference following the settlement announcement, for example, co-owner Jimmy Haslam, asked about Watson’s behavior, replied, “It’s important to remember that Deshaun Watson is 26 years old, and he’s a hell of an NFL quarterback.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that Haslam’s comments were received in a negative way. His remarks suggest that Watson’s age and talent are excuses for him to not take accountability for his actions. The comments also showed that Haslam values sticking by Watson and defending him to the media more than fixing the team’s image and getting on the public’s good side. That’s bad crisis communications.

During the same press conference, co-owner Dee Haslam (Jimmy’s wife) spoke of Watson growing as a person. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “He’s 26 years old, and he’s just getting into counseling.” The Haslams seemed to want to change the subject to the wider issue of sexual assault rather than this specific story.

Perception Standpoint

From a perception standpoint, rather than worrying about repairing the franchise’s image and easing the tension between Watson and the public, the Haslams’ comments make it seem as though they just want to forget this ever happened and move on with a controversial quarterback at the helm.

Although the wish to move forward is logical for the Haslams, this situation isn’t leaving the news cycle anytime soon. It will likely follow Watson for the rest of his career. It will certainly follow the Browns for as long as he’s their quarterback. The sooner Watson, the team and the league acknowledge the depth of Watson’s alleged infractions, the quicker they can move past this situation.

Photo credit: Jamie Lamor Thompson/Shutterstock

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe. 

Related:Washington NFL Team Confronts Harassment Claims