The decision for Deshaun Watson came in – 11-game suspension, $5 million fine. You have followed this closely. Were you surprised by the decision?
I expected the NFL to suspend it for at least a calendar year and face the consequences. And then I started to hear that there was a possibility of an arrangement. I guess the NFL Players Association was dug to 10 games and the NFL wanted 12, and you obviously split the difference by 11 and Deshaun Watson pays a little more than he wanted to get back on the court earlier. I’m surprised that happened because I felt like all the impetus was for the NFL to take full advantage of the power it has, once it got the decision to [appointed disciplinary officer] Sue L. Robinson concluding that he violated the personal conduct policy in three different ways, with four different women, non-violent sexual assault, flagrant behavior, predatory conduct, and then the commissioner [Roger Goodell] talked about it at a league meeting. I thought: that’s it, game over. We’re not going to see Deshaun Watson in 2022 at all.
The thing that shocked me yesterday: his public comments where he said, “I stand on my innocence.” And it reminded me of someone who agrees to plead guilty and just after the ink dries, says, “I didn’t do anything.
Deshaun Watson charged with sexual misconduct in lawsuits stemming from massage sessions; QB issues a denial
There was a huge response to his answer.
The NFL is criticized from time to time for being too preoccupied with optics when it comes to matters like this, but all personal conduct policy is an exercise in optics. Most employers don’t care, shouldn’t care, have legal problems if they try to care, problems an employee has outside of work, on leave, outside premises, not implying in any way the business, form or form. Ninety-nine point nine percent of American employers say if you can show up to work, it’s none of our business. And when they try to make it their business, they get into trouble. But the league and the union have agreed that basically an NFL player is there 24 hours a day, wherever they are in the world. And if you get in trouble, you’re subject to penalties under the Personal Conduct Policy, so this is all just an optical exercise.
I say this as a lifelong fan: there is a constant stream of scandalous stories surrounding the NFL. That said, he never loses his grip on the American public. To what do you attribute the popularity of this sport?
There was an issue involving one of the teams years ago – I can’t remember the specific context – but I’ll never forget the response I received from the league. When I asked the question if this, and if that, the answer was: we are the ultimate reality show. This is the mindset they have adopted. Is it true that there is no bad publicity? I think at some point it gets a bit problematic, but where the NFL benefits, especially in season, from any controversy that arises, there’s always a shiny, shiny object in the form of another game that attracts everyone’s attention. Perhaps. You have all the games on Sunday, then you have Monday, and if someone is upset about something that happened Monday night, you have Thursday for everyone to forget and move on. So it’s a lot easier for them to deal with it in season because people just have an insatiable appetite for the product. And the product is what gets people to embrace and enjoy the drama or, if necessary, hold their noses and move on.
For you, reporting is therefore not limited to what is happening in the field. As a sports journalist, what obligation do you feel to report what is on the sidelines?
As a fan who was 7 at the “Immaculate Reception” [the Pittsburgh Steelers’ legendary game-winning reception in 1972 AFC divisional playoff game.] arrived, and a room full of adults exploded, I realized at that moment, this is a big deal. This NFL is something I should pay attention to. I’ve always been driven by what interests me as a fan, and now it’s been 50 years and counting, and there are stories that go beyond the realm of what’s happening on the pitch. I remember when I entered this profession, 20 years ago, I felt horribly inadequate because I had no experience in journalism, but I practiced law. I got to a point a few years ago where I thought I would feel much more inadequate to cover the sport if I didn’t have a law degree because there is so much overlap. We try to take these issues and explain them to people in the most understandable way possible, and that’s one of the reasons why I think we’ve developed a niche and maintained it for years of competition. We try to bring this different option to the table wherever we can.
Your law degree seems like the perfect foundation for explaining contracts and criminal investigations.
One of the first days of law school in 1988, the professor explained that the most important thing he could give us is a poop filter. You develop a skill set, by practicing law, by studying people. I love watching press conferences. It’s one thing to see what someone said. It’s quite another to see them say it and how little they say about it. I love this part. We are stubbornly committed to exposing the BS, the untruths wherever they are, because they are definitely everywhere in the NFL. And that pisses people off. It pisses off the fans. It shakes up the league, but we stubbornly tried to be just to make a difference. Always being honest and honest with the public is something that is always the common thread.
You are part of this ecosystem, but you have managed to keep a critical eye on what is happening and tell the truth.
So how do you do it? How do NFL insiders view you?
In this business, I don’t care if a certain number of people don’t like me. I didn’t do it to make friends. I didn’t do it to gain popularity. I did it because I love football. Now some people don’t like the way I do it. Some people don’t like me sharing certain sincere beliefs that they don’t agree with, and I’ve been fortunate that in our 13 years of affiliation with NBC, they’ve been very supportive of me every time the NFL had a problem with me. I respect the fact that they always had my back. You need this if you want to balance that when you have a major platform but still have an independent approach. Because it’s hard to have an independent approach if you’re on a major platform. There’s a certain amount of your soul that you have to slice up and sell to keep the lords happy. We managed to strike that balance, and I’m lucky for that. Because it’s not just stubbornness on my part; you need to have a partner who is willing to respect what you do, support what you do, and take the darts from time to time with the NFL.
You often talk about how [NFL players] should maximize the small window of opportunity to earn money and be in charge of their own destiny.
What happened to me is that when you grow up and follow the NFL, the players are larger than life. Players are superhuman. And then as you get older, you realize one day that you are the same age as the players. Then you realize that the players are younger than me. Then you realize that there aren’t many players older than me. What really did it for me was when my son hit college and adulthood. You understand him and his problems and the challenges of being a young adult in today’s world. It made me more sensitive to what these guys are going through. They are just as vulnerable, inexperienced, confused and intimidated as my own son. That’s what I’m trying to do – get people to think of these players as a son, a cousin, a brother, a nephew, a friend. Someone you know. Someone you care about. Someone who, when they have surgery, it’s not minor surgery, it’s major surgery. Any surgery is major surgery. It’s just a minor surgery when it’s not performed on you or someone you love.
So that’s the voice that I sort of evolved into. I don’t know if this would have ever happened without having a child who evolved through the same stages as me. But it’s something that excites me and has upset some people. People don’t like their enjoyment of the sport being disrupted by one of the larger moral wrestling matches. There is a conflict with the team. Why are you angry with the player? The player has a chance to get enough money to take care of himself and his family. Owners are already taken care of, and they will do it again and again.
When it comes to both, the public will line up behind the owners.
Well, I think from the perspective of people who don’t have a lot of money, there’s very little difference between billionaires and millionaires — and there’s a huge difference between millionaires and billionaires! And a lot of players aren’t even millionaires. A lot of players win – and I know to say only $600,000, but compared to Tom Brady or some of the star players, that’s peanuts compared to what the owners have. It’s peanut sweepings, as Homer Simpson would say. There’s a little Jerry Seinfeld [has] done over the years, where when you’re a sports fan, you’re just rooting for the laundry. You don’t support the people who wear them, and if the guy leaves and wears a different laundry, you hate him, and if he wears your laundry, you love him. The common bond between fan and owner is that they are identified with the support of this laundry. Players will come and go.
Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.