Deshaun Watson’s sexual assault allegations and the dangers of the ‘nice guy’ defense
If you’re shocked by anything about the legal case against Deshaun Watson, be shocked by the numbers. On Wednesday, two more women filed lawsuits against the quarterback, bringing the total to 21. Twenty-one women who say he sexually assaulted or behaved inappropriately toward them. But that’s not the number I’m stuck on.
I’m stuck on 18. That’s how many women made positive statements about Watson’s character, which his lawyer released almost as soon as the newest lawsuits went live on the Harris county district clerk’s website. These testimonials are mentioned in news stories alongside the growing pile of suits – as if they carry a similar weight, as if they mean anything at all.
Since he led Clemson to a national championship in 2017, Watson has been painted as one of football’s good guys. His teammates like him. He worked with Habitat for Humanity. Those are facts. They stand on their own, and they have no relationship to the matter at hand. We don’t yet know if Watson is guilty of the allegations filed against him, and he has denied them. But so-called good guys do terrible things all the time.
Think about the script every time someone in sports is fired, suspended or facing legal action. It’s always the same: A general manager or a team owner or a coach will talk about the due diligence they did, the calls they made, the glowing reviews. So obviously, it – whatever transgression it is – well, it’s shocking.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume teams do make those calls. Most of the time they’re going to turn up applause, and most teams won’t dig any deeper. There’s always someone willing to say this player (or coach, or trainer, or scout) is a good guy. Maybe that someone believes it. Maybe there are 18 someones.
Affirmative statements don’t negate lawsuits. Charitable work doesn’t preclude criminal behavior. Being a good teammate doesn’t guarantee respectful behavior off the field.
But too often, we – the media – blur those lines. We see players in locker rooms and develop relationships with them in these safe, controlled, contrived spaces. We think we know them. We learn about their lives, their families, their hobbies, and we forget. We forget that we don’t really know them even a little bit, that it’s not our job to automatically give them the benefit of the doubt.
Watson, though, has been getting that benefit since the first case against him was filed. Reporters have called people close to him for comment and commented themselves about his character. Only the mounting number of lawsuits, it seems, has been enough to convince some people in the football world that this isn’t something they can ignore. It shouldn’t take 21 accusations. It shouldn’t even take two. Even if it’s the nicest player you’ve ever interviewed, the best talker on your TV.
When I was in grad school, I covered the Missouri football team for a season, and in my first week on the beat, the team’s star running back, Derrick Washington, was pulled out of practice with no explanation. I asked if a colleague could get to the local courthouse before it closed to see if there were any pending criminal charges.
There were. A woman had come forward alleging Washington had sexually assaulted her. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.
Later, after the whirlwind of the initial reporting slowed, I learned Washington was one of the most-liked players on the team. He was a captain, a vocal leader, the guy coaches would point to as an example. I knew none of that at the time – and I wonder now what I might’ve done differently if I had. Would I have been slower to explore a worst-case scenario? I hope not.
The truth of the Watson case remains to be seen, and he currently faces civil lawsuits rather than criminal charges. But let’s temper the talk of his reputation. Let’s forget about character witnesses and whether he is a nice guy and search for the facts. And if we’re going to give weight to the words of 18 women, then we must give it to the 21 as well – 21 women who don’t have the luxury of character witnesses, of millions of dollars, of an adoring public holding fast to the belief that this person, who they don’t know, is good.