On Tuesday night, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel will debut a story that includes interviews with “several” of the women accusing Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, does not have high expectations for the finished product.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I’m not optimistic,” Hardin told Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I believe they’ll air the accusations of the women without attempting to look behind it to see what kind of merit do they have.”
Hardin has tried in the past to get the media to focus on the merits, or lack thereof, of the specific allegations. His efforts didn’t take. He eventually stopped trying.
“My approach all along was that we were not going to win the battle of public opinion,’’ Hardin told Cabot, not mentioning the fact that did indeed tried to sway media and fans Watson’s way in 2021, with multiple press conferences and the release of evidence that potentially undermines the allegations, such as text messages. “And my goal has always been to have these cases examined by law enforcement and I strongly believed that trained investigators would ultimately conclude that there was nothing to them from a criminal standpoint and that’s where my focus has always been.”
The problem was, frankly, that attorney Tony Buzbee seized the early momentum in the court of public opinion. By the time Watson’s camp tried to join the battle, the battle had in many respects already been lost. So now the story has become that the strategy has always been to forget about public opinion and focus on the strict legal principles that determine whether misconduct did or didn’t happen.
“I thought that’s what the NFL teams cared most about and with the exception of Miami, that’s true,” Hardin told Cabot. By singling out Miami, Hardin is alluding to the fact that the Dolphins refused to trade for Watson in 2021 unless all 22 civil cases were settled.
Regardless of the reasons for Hardin’s abandonment of any effort to win in the court of public opinion, the fact remains that public opinion ultimately fuels every decision made by the NFL under the Personal Conduct Policy. The vast majority of American businesses don’t take action against employees for off-duty misconduct, especially if there is no arrest or conviction. Even then, most employers as to most offenses allow the employee to remain employed, as long as the employee is physically able to show up for work.
The NFL’s effort to police the private lives of players comes entirely from P.R. considerations. Fans and media expect real consequences for certain type of behavior, regardless of whether it’s irrelevant to the player’s work responsibilities. Thus, at the end of the day, public opinion and fan/media expectations will influence the decisions made by the league.
For example, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was never arrested or even sued. He was still suspended six games in 2017, based on allegations of domestic violence. Why? Because it happened three years after the Commissioner nearly lost his job due to the perception that he was not aggressive enough in punishing former NFL running back Ray Rice.
The Commissioner, as explained in detail in Playmakers, won’t make that same mistake again. Thus, regardless of what happens in a court of law, the verdict in the court of public opinion will greatly influence the Commissioner. Anyone who doesn’t realize that doesn’t understand how the NFL metes out its specific brand of gridiron justice.