Deshaun Watson and the Failed Politics of Personal Choices

The numbers speak for themselves.

During the National Football League’s 2021 season, television and digital ratings increased 10 percent from the previous year, to the highest number in six years. Game broadcasts accounted for 91 of the top 100 most watched programs across TV and digital platforms. Revenue is at an all-time high. The recitation of these types of numbers feels almost perfunctory at this point. They get trotted out during every N.F.L. controversy, whether it is traumatic brain injuries, Colin Kaepernick’s protest and subsequent blackballing or whatever else. The point is always the same: Scandals come and go, but the N.F.L. will always grow.

The same could be said about Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen massage therapists. Watson has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and although he has issued a series of frankly bizarre and incoherent written apologies, he has also followed them with public statements that he is fully innocent and “never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone.” Those looking for genuine remorse or even a consistent acknowledgment of wrongdoing will have to look elsewhere. For now, Watson is set to pay a $5 million fine and serve an 11-game suspension, a sentence that came out of a lengthy arbitration process involving the N.F.L., the player’s union and Sue Robinson, a former U.S. District Court judge acting as an arbitrator, who, despite describing Watson’s behavior as “predatory,” suggested a mere six-game suspension. (Robinson claimed that N.F.L. policies and prior rulings prevented her from issuing a harsher punishment.)

The Watson case is further complicated by the fact that the N.F.L. pushed for the longer punishment. Roger Goodell, the much maligned commissioner of the league, who has also called Watson’s behavior “predatory,” appealed Robinson’s decision to suspend Watson for six games because he felt it was too lenient. If the segment of the public that wants to see accused sexual predators punished wants to get mad at the institution most responsible for getting Watson back on the field as early as possible, they should direct their anger at the N.F.L. Players Association, which has thrown its weight into Watson’s defense. The N.F.L.P.A. could have handled this situation with a bit less defiance, but it’s also the job of a union to protect the interests of its members and fight any punitive outcomes that could set standards down the line. What’s more, getting mad at the N.F.L.P.A. just isn’t the same as getting mad at the entire N.F.L. This is much different from the Colin Kaepernick debacle, when one could reasonably assume that the league’s powers collectively ostracized a player for kneeling.

Everyone should be outraged by the credibility and the sheer of volume of accusations against Watson and the N.F.L.’s findings, and disgusted by Watson’s conflicting and jumbled statements. But what really can be done about it?

What the Watson case reveals is the truly dissatisfying and ultimately toothless politics of personal consumer choices. As fans, the only option we really have is just to not financially support the Browns or the N.F.L., but we also understand that there won’t be a critical mass of people who make the same decision. This doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody cares about the allegations against Watson, but rather that the size of the N.F.L.’s audience can withstand a large amount of justified disgust. It also shows just how little sway collective actions like boycotts have today — it’s not just that a boycott of the N.F.L. feels far-fetched and silly, it’s that it isn’t even within the realm of wishful conversation.

There also seems to be a growing mismatch between the perceived size of the outrage and the actual possibilities for change. Liberals and progressives are very good at whipping up outrage, mobilizing social media and even heading out to street protests, but something about the atomization of American life over the past two decades, where people might feel less connected to their communities and far more economically precarious than previous generations, has made it difficult to set a collective goal and plan out how to get there. As a result, the questions of political engagement aren’t so much focused on how to get people interested or even personally invested in causes, but rather what to do with the glut of outrage that can now be generated, and whether powerful institutions, including the N.F.L., the police and the Supreme Court, can just tune it all out until it subsides.

I was listening to an episode of “The Ringer N.F.L. Show” recently about the Watson suspension. The podcast episode’s hosts, Nora Princiotti and Lindsay Jones, talked for a half-hour about the news and rightfully dismissed Watson’s half apologies. The tone was appropriately dejected, as if they knew that the outcome would not satisfy any standard of justice and that there also was really nothing that could be done about it. It should be a familiar feeling in 2022: So many of us feel both indignant and helpless. A star quarterback can be accused by more than 20 women of sexual misconduct, the league that employs him can corroborate those claims, a New York Timesinvestigation can uncover even more accusations, a third-party arbitrator can also find Watson liable — and in the end, he will still suit up to start an N.F.L. game on December 4. And while I don’t think all will be forgiven and forgotten by then, the simple truth is that despite years of scandal surrounding the N.F.L., especially when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault, Deshaun Watson will still make the lion’s share of the record-setting $230 million contract he signed with the Browns after the allegations had come to light. He will serve more than the two game suspension that the Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice received for brutally knocking out his fiancée, who is now his wife, in 2014, but Ray Rice also never played again in the N.F.L. So how do you even measure progress?

There are many ways to dissect and analyze this sad state of affairs, and much potential blame to hand out. Some may lament the attention span of today’s activists and question their dedication beyond simply raising awareness. Others may rightfully point out that there never really was any hope that women — especially massage therapists, who are oftentimes wrongly associated with sex work — would ever be heard in the macho world of professional football. But these arguments, however true they may be, will almost all be diagnostic in nature. Regardless of whatever explanation wins out, we will know that the only real action we can take is to just not watch N.F.L. games, which we also know would accomplish nothing.

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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