The NFL just delivered a PR win to Deshaun Watson in his sexual misconduct litigation

·NFL columnist
·4-min read

For months, the Houston Texans and Deshaun Watson waited for the NFL to intervene. Waited, waited and waited, watching the offseason calendar flip from one month into the next.

It all led into Sunday, when a measure of clarity finally settled in for the quarterback and the Texans. After operating largely in silence for almost an entire offseason, the NFL made a statement this week by simply continuing to not make any statement. 

Despite investigating Watson since March — following the filing of civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct against 23 women (one has since withdrawn litigation) — the league office chose not to put Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list prior to the start of training camp. 

That’s a significant public relations win for the quarterback, given that the lawyer for the women suing Watson, Tony Buzbee, confirmed that a handful of his clients spoke to NFL investigator Lisa Friel during the league’s probe. Buzbee was critical of how those interviews went, going as far as to claim the NFL didn’t “respect” the alleged victims during the interview process. Those complaints ultimately prompted the league to defend Friel and state that the investigation was ongoing while the league also kept tabs on any law enforcement involvement.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 03: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans participates in warmups prior to a game against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on January 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Deshaun Watson isn't backing off of his trade demands out of Houston. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

What does it mean that Watson wasn’t put on NFL's exempt list before Sunday? 

It means that the league has gone through its process up to this point and still hasn’t been compelled to force Watson onto paid leave. That doesn’t necessarily mean Watson will never be sidelined by the NFL, but it’s notable that the league office hasn’t reached that juncture following more than four months of investigation. At the very least, that gives Watson additional public relations traction, given that the Houston Police Department's investigation (which has also been ongoing for more than four months) hasn’t produced criminal charges tied to the civil lawsuits.

Combined with Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, repeatedly stating that the quarterback intends to go through the litigation process rather than settle, it’s all suggestive that Watson’s ability to play football may not be impacted until the lawsuits begin to be tried — if at all. The timeline for the civil lawsuit litigation has already been established in a manner that will free Watson to play out the 2021 season before entering a courtroom, with his first deposition not slated until February 2022.

That means for now, Watson’s football future will once again take center stage. A Texans team source confirmed Sunday morning that Watson intends to report to camp on time, thereby avoiding the $50,000 in daily fines that Houston could have levied against him. It also means that a potential trade could pick up speed in the next few weeks, with the Texans now having to contemplate what it will mean to have Watson in the building and around the team when he’s still adamant about seeking a trade.

Does this revamp Deshaun Watson trade talks?

That’s going to ramp up some element of pressure for the Texans, who will now have to weigh the risks of putting Watson onto a practice field — where he could suffer an injury — versus protecting a trade commodity. And it might be that very quandary that opens the phone lines to other teams to pursue Watson. If the Texans keep Watson off the field, it will be clear that the team is protecting him for a trade. If Houston sends him out for practice, it could signal that the franchise is making a last-ditch effort to repair the rift between itself and its star.

At the moment, the likelihood of that appears slim. Watson’s camp has made a point to relay that he’s showing up for training camp to preserve his $10.54 million salary in 2021, not to back away from the offseason trade demand. Watson’s advisers also know this move serves a purpose beyond avoiding fines, putting the Texans into a position where they have to make a choice with the quarterback. It's a decision that may finally end with Watson on the trading block and Houston willing to take offers for him, ending the team’s months-long stonewalling of trade inquiries.

However Houston chooses to handle the situation, what’s clear is that Watson has achieved a public relations win that his legal team had been hoping for. Watson and the Texans spent months acutely aware that the NFL could step in at any moment and remove him from the field until his legal issues were resolved. The league ultimately has declined to do that, putting Watson into a position where he can start applying more pressure to his football future.

Ultimately, no news from the NFL is good news for Watson. And that’s exactly what he received this week.

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