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Deshaun Watson cleared of criminal charges pertaining to sexual accusations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the NFL's Cleveland Browns picked up Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans late last week, the Browns gained one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The team also picked up a lot of controversy. Watson hasn't played since 2020 because of sexual misconduct allegations. Twenty-two women have civil cases against him, and we're going to be discussing those allegations at length. Earlier this month, a grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, making his return to the field possible. Lindsay Jones reports on the NFL for The Athletic. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LINDSAY JONES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Can you just briefly tell us about these 22 cases against Deshaun Watson?

JONES: Sure. So 22 women have filed civil complaints alleging various forms of sexual misconduct against Deshaun Watson for various things that happened during massage appointments. These are all licensed massage therapists who Deshaun Watson reached out to, allegedly over Instagram, over direct messages to come and perform work. They've accused him of various forms of sexual misconduct from groping, fondling to other sorts of unwanted sexual contact.

SHAPIRO: And knowing that, the Browns gave him a $230 million guaranteed contract, which is a record. Is it surprising to see a deal like that for a player facing those kinds of allegations?

JONES: It was. The contract numbers were certainly stunning as well as the way that the contract was structured, where the first year of that deal for 2022 has a low base salary of around a million dollars. So ultimately, if he is suspended by the NFL, it won't be a huge financial penalty. So it was stunning in terms of the draft compensation that they gave up to the Texans to acquire him and the amount of money that he was given given the uncertainties about his availability to play later this year.

SHAPIRO: Watson has not spoken publicly about this. Is there an argument to be made that he should be allowed to continue with his career until these claims are resolved, until they are proven?

JONES: Sure. That's the argument that, you know, he and his legal team have made - that, you know, he is not facing any sort of criminal charges. There are only civil allegations at this point.

SHAPIRO: Do you believe the NFL ultimately will take some kind of disciplinary action against him?

JONES: There are multiple instances where the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended players for personal conduct violation absent criminal charges. It's just really hard to predict, though, exactly what the NFL is going to do. We know their investigation is open. They've interviewed at least ten of the women, although it's been months, their lawyer has told us, since they've done any of these interviews. So it seems to be a slow process, and they have yet to interview Deshaun Watson. So we don't know exactly how this is going to happen, but it is certainly possible that at some point in the 2022 season, Deshaun Watson would be suspended.

SHAPIRO: What's the reaction been from fans in Cleveland?

JONES: I think it's been very mixed. You know, I've heard directly from a number of fans, particularly female fans, who are really frustrated, really unhappy, are ready to give up their long fandom of the Browns because of this decision. And then, you know, of course, there are fans who are starved to win and starved for a star quarterback who are, you know, willing to give the team the benefit of the doubt. So I think it's been very mixed reaction but definitely some fans that are upset.

SHAPIRO: We've talked about the team and about the NFL more broadly. Do you think this says something about the #MeToo movement and the narrative of accountability and sensitivity? Was that overstated?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, it's been really hard, right? I think as a woman who covers the NFL, it's been hard to kind of reconcile the things that I've read in these complaints and, you know, the reporting on that side with the contract numbers. And it's been a reminder that, you know, the NFL isn't really any better-equipped to handle crimes against women than society is in general.

SHAPIRO: Lindsay Jones is a reporter with The Athletic covering the NFL. Thank you for speaking with us.

JONES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.