The hearing on a possible disciplinary sanction for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson ended six days ago. In five days, the two sides will submit written documents to Judge Sue L. Robinson setting out their respective positions. In the meantime, a negotiated compromise can be reached. In theory.
Arguments have been put forward as to the prudence of an agreement. And it would make sense. Legal disputes are always concluded without a formal decision. The best result leaves both sides a little angry about the final decision. But it eliminates the prospect of one side getting extremely sour over the clear and ultimate loss.
The problem for the league is PR. The NFL, and Commissioner Roger Goodell in particular, cannot afford to be perceived as overly lenient towards Watson, despite the potential flaws in the case presented to Judge Robinson. That’s why the league wants a minimum ban of one year, and that’s why the limited updates from the three days of hearing consisted largely of reminders that the league still wants him banned for at least a year.
How could the league sell the idea of anything less than that? It wouldn’t be easy. Although many cases like this are in fact resolved amicably, the mere suggestion, made a week before the hearing began, that Watson could be actively involved in deciding his suspension caused confusion and criticism. Even if the league leaks its reasoning to reporters who present it to the public without skepticism, or Goodell holds a press conference to explain it without the usual torrent of non-responses, it will be difficult for the league to sell anything like a foursome or six-game or even eight-game suspension.
A settlement could make a lot more sense for the NFL after Judge Robinson announced a decision. As long as it imposes any discipline, the league can appeal to Goodell, who would have the final say. He could face a season-long suspension or longer if he wanted to. It will be much easier for the League to deal with Watson once someone other than the League has made a decision as to whether the Personal Conduct Policy has been violated and what the penalty should be.
Let’s say Judge Robinson bans Watson for four games. That is their decision, ideally communicated through a carefully written decision that is understandable to anyone who would like to believe at first glance that the discipline is insufficient. Then, when Goodell holds the gavel, which would allow him to increase the sentence to a full year, the settlement talks could take place – and a suspension that would end up being longer than the one Judge Robinson imposed would than the league viewed who successfully urged her to get a heavier sentence.
Some would say that if Goodell holds all the cards, if/when Judge Robinson imposes any discipline on Watson at all, why should he do anything less than use the full extent of his powers? That would avoid the possibility of losing in court, however slight. If it ever comes to that.
The league isn’t used to taking it easy on players, especially after the Ray Rice fiasco of 2014. This is the first case to be handled under a process aimed at minimizing Goodell’s impact. And his influence is indeed minimized until the time comes for an appeal.
Someone in the league floated the idea last week that the NFL wouldn’t be appealing at all if Judge Robinson suspended Watson for six or eight games. Perhaps the league would appeal and accept six or eight games as a negotiated compromise if they suspended him for anything less than that. Perhaps taking advantage of the fact that Watson missed all of 2021 as a time wasted as he would absolutely have been traded to another team and would have played the full season had the 24 civil charges and 10 criminal charges not been pending.
He would have to give up the $10 million salary he earned for not playing last year, if a full season de facto paid leave becomes a retrospective suspension. Maybe he would if it meant getting on the field sooner or later. If the choice comes down to risking a suspension on appeal for all of 2022 or giving up his 2021 salary while missing four, six or eight games in 2022, maybe he would do it.
Regardless, it will become easier for the league to sell something like this to the media and fans after Judge Robinson issued a ruling that explains, from the perspective of a true outsider, why the Personal Conduct Policy is being applied to the facts of the case may not be anywhere near what the league wants. At this point, it would make a lot of sense for both sides to work something out, especially since the league could choose to stay firm. Suspend him for a year. And then to take their chances in court.
The biggest risk the league is taking in waiting for Judge Robinson’s decision is that if it doesn’t impose discipline at all, there’s nothing that can be done at this point. The NFL will finally lose and Watson will be completely free to gear up for the first week.
You could fix it all at any time. Again, without Judge Robinson’s decision, it would be very difficult for the league to avoid feeling that it did not go far enough in punishing Watson.