Open the garage door at Patrick Robertson’s Winston-Salem home, and your eyes are instantly assaulted by a tidal wave of black and blue. Seventy-five Carolina Panthers jerseys hang from the walls, many of them framed and autographed.
Robertson intends to grow his collection until he has no more wallspace left, but there’s at least one player whose jersey the Panthers superfan isn’t sure he’d ever display. The allegations of sexual misconduct against Deshaun Watson leave Robertson squeamish about purchasing the embattled quarterback’s jersey were the Panthers to someday trade for him.
“I just don’t think it’s the right move,” Robertson told Yahoo Sports. “I’m a family person. I want my kids to treat others as they wish to be treated, so it’s hard for me to take them to a football game and ask them to cheer for my team knowing that the guy throwing the ball wouldn’t be a good role model for them. For me, with the allegations, it’s a no.”
Robertson’s stance exemplifies how divisive the notion of pursuing a trade for Watson is for fans of the NFL’s most quarterback-needy teams. Yes, Watson is a true franchise quarterback who at 26 is just entering his prime. Yes, it’s exceedingly rare for someone with those credentials to be on the trading block. Yes, winning without a difference maker at quarterback is harder than ever in today’s pass-happy NFL.
But fans want not only to root for a Super Bowl contender but also to be proud of how that team was built. And, for many, it would be tough to feel that way if the catalyst were bringing aboard a quarterback who more than 20 women have accused of coercive and lewd behavior.
The Miami Dolphins have churned through 23 starting quarterbacks without finding a worthy heir to Dan Marino, yet the majority of their fans appear uncertain if the team’s interest in Watson is the solution. More than two-thirds of those who responded to a recent Palm Beach Post poll preferred passing on Watson and showing faith in Tua Tagovailoa.
The Denver Broncos have started 12 different quarterbacks over the past six seasons, yet there isn’t an overwhelming outcry over the team’s reluctance to pursue Watson. On Monday, two Denver Post writers debated the Watson question. Both concluded that without further clarity about his legal issues, Watson is too radioactive for the Broncos to touch.
It’s more of the same in Charlotte, even with Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold seeing ghosts again and reverting to his inefficient New York Jets form. Kyle Bailey, host of WFNZ’s ”The Clubhouse,” described himself as “one of many” who thought the Panthers should do whatever it takes to land Watson when he first asked to be traded 10 months ago. The Charlotte sports radio personality estimated that his audience is now “70-30 against” trading for Watson as a result of the allegations against him.
“It’s a moral dilemma for a lot of people, and it should be,” Bailey told Yahoo Sports. “Deshaun Watson deserves his day in court and there should be a presumption of innocence, but it’s hard to overlook that two dozen women who have no ties to each other are telling the same story.”
The potential for backlash adds an extra complication for teams weighing making an offer for Watson before Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline. The Broncos for now don’t appear interested in engaging in trade talks. The Panthers reportedly are no longer pursuing Watson at this time.
The Dolphins appeared to be the Texans' lone remaining trade partner prior to Tuesday's deadline. That is until Wednesday when reports surfaced that team owner Stephen Ross would not move forward on a trade without the allegations against Watson being settled and clarity from the NFL on what sort of punishment the quarterback will face.
How much of a factor fan reaction is in deals like this likely varies from team to team. On one hand, a team would be foolish to ignore its customers. On the other hand, fans have a long history of warming to any move that helps their team win.
Watson’s legal issues
It’s easy to forget that only eight months ago suitors were lining up to try to trade for Watson and devoted fans were drooling at the possibility.
Before allegations of sexual misconduct began to pile up against him this past spring, Watson’s reputation was virtually spotless. He won a national title at Clemson. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons as the Texans’ primary starter. And any non-football headlines he garnered often touted his generosity and charity work.
So when word broke that Waston wanted out of Houston, he became the hottest commodity in the league.
Everything changed last March when Houston attorney Tony Buzbee announced via Instagram that he was filing suit against Watson. Twenty-three women have since accused Watson of sexual misconduct or assault, and 22 have filed civil lawsuits against him.
The lawsuits accuse Watson of preying on women who worked as licensed massage therapists or in a spa or similar business. The women allege that Watson exposed himself in front of them, inappropriately touched them with his penis and kissed or groped them against their will. At least one woman alleges that Watson forced her to perform oral sex during a massage.
The Houston Police have reportedly investigated Watson but thus far he faces no criminal charges. Through a social media post and his attorney, Watson has denied any wrongdoing. In a March 17 statement, he insisted that he has “never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect.”
While Watson has yet to play in a game for the Texans this season, he remains eligible to do so. Roger Goodell told reporters this week that Watson will not be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, insisting the league doesn’t have enough information to do so.
That means that Watson could play right away for any team that is willing to meet the Texans’ sky-high asking price or able to negotiate it down. Houston has sought at least three first-round draft picks and other assets despite the damage to Watson’s value.
The other obstacle standing in the way of a potential deal is that Watson would have to waive his no-trade clause. He is believed to have done so only for Miami, perhaps a sign he is trying to give the Dolphins the inside track to acquire him.
Fans conflicted about Watson
If you had told Tara Rosado last year that her Dolphins were in the best position to land Watson, she says her response would have been, “Hell, yeah!” Now the lifelong Dolphins fan is conflicted about her team’s interest, unsure of how to feel about the pursuit of a top-five quarterback.
Other women have pledged to boycott the Dolphins if they trade for Watson. Rosado respects their stance and feels a degree of “pressure” to go along with it. “As a woman, how can you not stand by other women?” she says.
At the same time, Rosado, 50, has stood by her team through two playoff appearances in two decades. She has endured Dave Wannstedt and Adam Gase, Josh Rosen and Jay Fiedler. A controversial trade for Watson would not cause her to abandon the Dolphins, not even close.
“I’m not leaving my team,” Rosado told Yahoo Sports. “If you tell me Watson is my quarterback, that’s who I’m cheering for.”
To Panthers superfan Greg “Catman” Good Jr., the Watson question is more clear-cut. The son of the original “Catman” isn’t comfortable with his favorite team making a trade offer for Watson unless new evidence exonerating the star quarterback emerges.
The way Good sees it, the Panthers trading for Watson would be especially hypocritical. This is the franchise that just last year removed a statue of its former owner disgraced by allegations of racism and sexual harassment. This is a franchise whose second-year head coach frequently preaches winning “the right way.”
“If they traded for Watson, then everything he was saying would be, excuse my language, some bulls***,” said Good, who attends Panthers games dressed in a blue wig and cape with a stuffed panther draped over his shoulder. “You can’t win the right way by hiring a[n] [alleged] sex offender. That’s not the right way.”
Monika Johnson Hostler isn’t surprised that Watson is drawing trade interest in spite of the accusations he is facing. The executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault describes the Watson situation as a “microcosm” of what is happening all too often in her home state and beyond.
“It’s just another group of people that are making the decision not to be accountable to survivors and to their community,” Johnson Hostler told Yahoo Sports.
What Johnson Hostler would like NFL teams to understand is that it takes more than lip service to change their culture. Johnson Hostler argues that teams should work to better understand the concerns of sexual assault survivors and their advocates, should vet potential players and staff about their behavior toward women and should educate employees about sexual violence before issues arise.
“The NFL’s accountability can’t just be to their wallet,” Johnson Hostler said. “They have to commit to being more of a community leader to create change.”
Count Robertson among the Panthers fans pleased that the team appears to be dialing back its pursuit of Watson for now. Robertson would prefer the Panthers to soldier on without a top-tier quarterback than to add Watson while his legal issues remain unresolved.
Panthers team owner David Tepper has famously made a fortune strategically investing in distressed debt properties with significant upside. Should Tepper deem Watson a good buy-low opportunity this offseason, Robertson says he’d have misgivings but he would never disown the Panthers over them.
“The Panthers are a huge part of my life,” he said. “I’d still cheer for them, but it would be mixed feelings for sure.”