Deshaun Watson’s return is met with boos, and a win
By Jenny Vrentas
Exactly 700 days had passed since Deshaun Watson last represented an NFL franchise in a regular-season game and, on Sunday, very little was the same since his last start.
Watson took the field at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, the team for which he had played his entire professional career. Only this time, Watson was the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.
And while Watson and his new team, the franchise that committed a guaranteed $230 million to him in March, spent the week trying to shift the focus to football, the significance of this meeting of two losing teams was not the game itself or the result, a 27-14 Browns win.
Rather, Sunday marked the return of a star quarterback to the NFL’s regular-season stage for the first time since more than two dozen women accused him of assaulting or harassing them in massage appointments. One of the women called his appearance “incredibly painful.”
The game marked the end of the 11-game suspension the league issued Watson as punishment for multiple violations of its personal conduct policy. The penalty was the result of those accusations and the much scrutinized NFL disciplinary process that followed.
Watson, 27, steadfastly denied the accusations against him, most recently on Aug. 18, the day he and the NFL agreed to the terms of his discipline, which also included a $5 million fine and required participation in a behavioral evaluation and treatment program as a condition of his reinstatement. An NFL spokesperson said the jointly selected treatment provider informed the league and the players union that Watson had “made strides” but instructed him not to talk about his treatment publicly.
Watson was met with a chorus of boos when he stepped to the line of scrimmage to take his first snap, just moments after Texans quarterback Kyle Allen threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage. The play was at first called an incomplete pass, but, after a review, the ball was ruled to have been picked off. The review meant fans’ boos lingered and built as Watson took the field with 14 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
There was no way of knowing if the boos were the result of Watson’s acrimonious split from the Texans after sitting out the 2021 season following a trade demand. Or if they came from attendees voicing their displeasure over the extensive accusations of sexual misconduct. Or both.
What was clear immediately was Watson’s unfamiliarity with commanding an NFL offense, as he missed throws and threw an end zone interception in a game in which the Browns’ defensive and special teams units scored all three of Cleveland’s touchdowns. Watson completed 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards, with no touchdowns and a 53.4 passer rating, not a showing that recalled the Pro Bowl-level performances Watson was accustomed to having before his near two-year absence from the game.
The Browns made Watson the face of the franchise and signed him to an unprecedented contract based on his ability to win games and distance himself from the accusations.
Two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, and Watson settled 23 of the 26 lawsuits filed against him (one case was withdrawn for privacy reasons). While Watson has said his defense lawyers have advised him not to talk about any of the legal proceedings, including the two open lawsuits, his absence for more than half of this NFL season came as a result of a settlement agreement between representatives from his legal team, the players union and the league. A third-party disciplinary officer had determined that Watson demonstrated a pattern of conduct that was “predatory” and “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” but issued a shorter suspension than the one reached in the settlement.
The silence this week from Watson and the Browns regarding anything besides throws and catches meant that Watson played in front of 66,523 fans in Houston, as well as millions through TV and radio broadcasts, without having publicly addressed his behavior with the massage therapists since August. Watson apologized “to all of the women I have impacted in this situation” as his NFL discipline was being decided, but later, again asserted his innocence and said he was apologizing because people had been “triggered.”
Watson declined to say Sunday whether he felt remorse for the actions that led to his suspension, saying he has been advised by his legal and clinical team to not answer questions like that.
“Of course, it’s a tough situation, the suspension was tough, but at the same time my main focus was to just try to be 1-0 as a football player today,” he said.
Lauren Baxley, one of the two women with an open lawsuit against Watson, told The New York Times that his return to the field was “incredibly painful to consider.”
“It is difficult to balance my efforts to heal, while being acutely aware that most in the media and sports world will continue to praise his athleticism and ignore his range of assaults against dozens of women,” Baxley wrote in a text message. “Whatever nanoscopic punishment he may have fulfilled to the satisfaction of the NFL brings neither healing nor justice to us, nor protection for future women in his presence.”
Baxley declined an invitation from Tony Buzbee, the lawyer for most of the women who filed suits against Watson, to attend the game in a suite at NRG Stadium. Buzbee confirmed that around 10 of Watson’s accusers showed up to the game. Baxley did not want to watch Watson’s return, either in person or on TV, but said she hoped the women who attended felt “safe and supported.”
Shortly after Watson requested a trade from the Texans in early 2021, Ashley Solis, a licensed massage therapist, filed the first lawsuit accusing him of lewd behavior in massage appointments. An avalanche of similar accusations followed and Watson was in professional and legal peril.
When a first grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges in March 2022 — but before a second grand jury met or he had settled any lawsuits — several NFL teams began courting Watson in the hopes that he would waive his no-trade clause to play for them. The Browns won the bidding war and sent a bevy of draft picks to the Texans, despite not having spoken to any of Watson’s accusers.
The Texans, for their part, settled with 30 women who accused Watson of sexual misconduct, after the Times reported that the team provided the venue Watson used for some of the massage appointments and a team representative furnished him with the nondisclosure agreement that he used with some massage therapists.
With Sunday’s game, Watson’s return to competitive football and the public eye began, even as he continues to litigate two open lawsuits against him and undergoes league-mandated treatment. Watson must continue to comply with the terms of the program or he could face additional discipline, said NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy.