Let’s get the stardust out of our eyes. In public, Deshaun Watson is a brilliant, blinding superstar: sensational talent, pristine reputation, charming persona, emerging athlete activist. Yet he now stands accused, among many alleged sins against massage therapists, of being a “serial predator.”
It’s the most uncomfortable sports story in a time of uncomfortable sports stories, and with each passing day, the accusations gain heft. For two weeks now, sexual misconduct allegations against the Houston Texans quarterback have accumulated with disturbing persistence, surfacing one, three, seven claims at a time. Nineteen lawsuits at last count. There is zero chance now this scandal bows to Watson’s fame and just goes away.
We’re a long way from clarity about whether Watson is innocent or guilty, whether we knew him as well as we imagined before the lawsuits rained down. We don’t know whether these civil cases could lead to criminal investigation. We’re even less certain of how the Texans – the bumbling franchise Watson doesn’t want to play for anymore – and the NFL will proceed.
But we must watch. We must look at all the dimensions of this scandal, no matter how disturbing. We cannot pretend this isn’t happening or this will blow over. And even though the world knows Watson, while his accusers are anonymous, we cannot use that as permission to be callous. Watson has all the resources provided by celebrity and wealth. His accusers have legal representation, and their stories. They deserve our attention and a sincere vetting.
Let’s get the star dust out of our eyes.
Everything about this escalating situation makes you cringe. The instinct is to run from it as quickly as possible. For me, the trepidation isn’t limited to utter shock and the sensitivity of the subject matter. No, there’s something more worrisome: a sense that this will be a messy and drawn-out process that sends another terrible message about how the NFL, and the rest of the male-dominated sports world, deals with female claims of abuse.
Unless all the women admit to lying, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Watson can be redeemed easily. The charm of his story almost certainly is over, dead. What’s left remains to be seen.
That’s a difficult notion to grasp because, just last month, Watson seemed he was coming into his own at age 25 and doing so impressively. He wasn’t just an elite quarterback. He was a central figure in the shifting power dynamic between NFL superstars and team ownership. His trade request was going to be the story of the offseason. Now, when having to think about his career, you are inclined to look away.
On Monday, Sports Illustrated published its own damning report about a woman not tied to the 19 filings of Texas lawyer Tony Buzbee. The independent reporting cast doubt on theories of a conspiracy. But more than that, I keep thinking about one quote from the latest anonymous massage therapist to come forward.
The woman said to SI’s Jenny Vrentas: “There are so many people that are against us, saying, ‘Why would he do that? He has no reason to do that. He has a beautiful girlfriend; he has this, this, this and this.’ All those things are true, but fame doesn’t create character.”
Fame doesn’t create character.
And anonymity doesn’t authorize mistrust.
Well, it shouldn’t. But that’s a common escape hatch for the accused, and sports figures access it frequently. And here we are, threatening to allow it again. All these years of bad experiences, all this recurrence of abusive tales, all this shame, and we have learned almost nothing about balancing due process for celebrities with the need to protect possible victims. The court of public opinion makes this difficult to do, and lawyers, agents and managers have every right to mount a vigorous defense. But the societal standards for the way we discuss these cases must be elevated, particularly in sports, where men and male attitudes occupy so much space.
At the start of the Watson scandal, his agent defended him on Twitter. David Mulugheta is young, bright and rising quickly in the business. His effort to redirect the conversation about Watson was lazy and dangerous, however. Even worse, it was easy for Watson’s supporters to cling to mindlessly.
“Sexual assault is real,” Mulugheta wrote. “Victims should be heard, offenders prosecuted. Individuals fabricate stories in pursuit of financial gain often. Their victims should be heard, and those offenders also prosecuted. I simply hope we keep this same energy with the truth.” Just once, it would be nice if we avoided doing that dangerous, soulless sports and celebrity thing during a situation like this. It would be revolutionary if we didn’t reduce it to a hero said/she said conversation in which the accused perversely shares victimhood with the accused. There is a way to be fair to Watson, to scrutinize the story as it develops but reserve final judgment for later, without shrinking the alleged victims down to gold-digger status.
The legal process is its own sideshow. Buzbee, who lives in the same neighborhood as Texans owner Cal McNair, is known for his flamboyance. As the attorney for the plaintiffs, he seems to be maximizing the rollout of these lawsuits, breaking news nearly every day while hinting that there’s more to come. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lawyer, accused Buzbee of creating a “circus-like atmosphere by using social media to publicize” the lawsuits. Hardin considers the effort to be “calculated to inflame the public and malign Deshaun’s otherwise sterling reputation.”
Then Hardin went after Buzbee for keeping all of the plaintiffs anonymous.
“In addition, the tactic of refusing our requests to confidentially provide the names of the plaintiffs so we can fully investigate their claims makes uncovering the truth extremely difficult,” he said. “Anonymity is often necessary as a shield for victims, but opposing counsel has used it as a sword to publicly humiliate Deshaun before the truth-seeking process can even begin.”
When the lawyers start posturing, it feels like the women – the massage therapists who say they couldn’t do their jobs without Watson trying to sexualize the experience – are mere instruments in the fight. For too much of the time, the prevailing story line shifts from the famous Watson’s future to the prominent lawyers’ audacious tussle. All the while, the women are in the background, hoping to stay anonymous but still be seen.
Let’s get the star dust out of our eyes.