COLUMN: How should the NFL handle players with pending legal matters?



The NFL and the Cleveland Browns are facing backlash after Deshaun Watson was signed to a record deal.

Anna Meyer, Sports Editor

Between 2000-2014, seven percent of players in the National Football League (NFL) were arrested due to a wide variety of illegal offenses. The NFL is a business that is notorious for its athletes dealing with conduct issues and run-ins with the law. Over the years, many NFL players have faced allegations of sexual assault, but each one faced a different consequence. While not all allegations have been found true, sexual assault and misconduct are something that the NFL needs to pay close attention to when finding their next generation of athletes and role models for young aspiring athletes. 

One of the most recent examples of a player being signed in the NFL with pending legal charges is the Cleveland Browns signing quarterback Deshaun Watson to a historic deal. This case specifically has brought up the morality of the NFL. When the Browns signed Watson on Friday, March 18, the package consisted of a guaranteed five-year deal and a $230 million contract. Despite being accused by 22 women of sexual misconduct or sexual assault, the Browns signed him anyways via one of the most expensive trades in NFL history. 

On the face of it, Watson is a talented young 26-year-old quarterback who has the potential to lead the franchise to their first Lombardi Trophy. In some fans’ eyes who care just about winning, Watson might be the “perfect” fit for the Browns, but others ask, “Should the Browns have even signed Watson or not?” The controversial signing has many fans and outsiders asking how NFL teams should handle players with pending legal matters? 

The answer to this question is complex and can not be answered overnight. Over the past century, the NFL has had many similar situations to Watson. One thing the NFL has shown us is that they are inconsistent in how they punish players for run-ins with the law. In the court of the law, a suspect is presumed innocent until they have been found guilty of a crime. 

For example, in 2009 and 2010, future NFL Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger was accused of rape twice. Some could say Roethlisberger is fortunate enough that his allegations didn’t take place during the “Me Too” era, which led to less media attention and coverage on the accusations. Roger Goodell and the NFL decided that Roethlisberger would receive a six-game suspension, which was later reduced to four games. 

Watson’s case seems far more complicated than these other cases as 22 women have pressed charges against him. Despite the grand jury opting against indicting Watson for nine of the cases, 13 cases remain unknown. I understand that the court believes one is innocent until proven guilty, but it seems merely impossible that 22 women would be lying, given that the accusations range from women across different states. 

The problem is that the NFL lacks specific guidelines for potential crimes. Leaving the punishment up to Goodell opens up a can of worms that potentially could show favoritism to certain players in the NFL. I am sure that it is a matter of time before Goodell has to make a ruling on what disciplinary actions Watson will face. 

I believe that NFL teams should resist signing players with pending legal matters because, at the end of the day, it divides the NFL and makes the league lack credibility. In this case, specifically with Watson, the Browns and the NFL have undone all of the positive work they have done on sexual abuse and domestic violence in the most recent years. No matter what decision Goodell makes, there will be upset individuals from the industry as well as the fan base. Situations like these make us realize that the NFL is just a business. 

In the future, the NFL should consider pending charges and proceed with caution on signing them until the court makes its final decision. By doing this, the NFL and players will avoid high levels of criticism both on and off the field and protect those who have been affected by horrific situations like sexual assault. 

In order for the Cleveland Browns’ fan base to remain loyal to their team in both good times and bad, at the national level, the NFL needs to make the right choice, so they do not alienate the Browns’ fan base. The NFL must address Watson’s allegations by putting him on the commissioner’s exempt list and/or suspending him for several games determined at a later time.