There’s been an encouraging shift in recent years with professional athletes and sexual violence. Teams and leagues appear at least a little more likely to punish — and less likely to quickly forgive — misconduct with women. Just this year, two Major League Baseball players, Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna and L.A’s Trevor Bauer, never saw the field again after such allegations surfaced.
The same has been true with the NFL’s Deshaun Watson. At least until now.
Watson, who starred at Clemson and for the Houston Texans, has had 22 troubling lawsuits filed against him since March, all for sexual assault and misconduct with women. Watson denies the allegations, and he hasn’t yet faced criminal charges. The NFL also hasn’t formally penalized him yet (Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league needs more information) but the Texans have sidelined him through the season’s first seven weeks. As they should have.
In recent days, however, Houston reportedly has been talking with other teams about Watson, and those suitors apparently included the Carolina Panthers. On Wednesday, however, ESPN reported that the Panthers have decided not to pursue Watson before the Nov. 2 trade deadline.
Good. We’re unsure what was behind the team backing away from a Watson deal, and we wish they hadn’t even considered it. But trading for him would have sent a stark and troubling message.
Sexual harassment and assault exist in every facet of our culture; in Charlotte alone, multiple high schools have faced sexual assault investigations this year. Other male dominated fields, including law enforcement, have high levels of domestic violence and sexual misconduct. Trading for Watson would have been another reminder that too little has changed despite the pleas of the #MeToo movement.
“At the end of the day, whether this player comes to Charlotte or not, we still have to be talking about this issue,” says Monika Johnson-Hostler, the Executive Director of the NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NC CASA). “This player, and the fact that there are trade negotiations on the table, allows us to say who we want to be as a community in what we believe around sexual assault survivors, and how we show up for survivors.”
Coming forward with allegations makes life harder for women, many of whom face community or public backlash. Already, one of Watson’s alleged victims has decided not to pursue her case out of fear of losing her privacy and safety. Ignoring those allegations further silences those who worry that speaking out is not worth the pain it brings.
The Panthers, of course, have a spotty history of sexual misconduct. Four players have been arrested for violence against women since 2000, and in 2017, then-Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was accused of sexual harassment and confidential payouts to employees because of his actions. He sold the team because of it, and at the time, that departure was a signal that things might be changing in the NFL. The league, which had inconsistently punished sexual assault, instituted a Domestic Violence Policy in 2014 that included harsher penalties.
The league also requires a short training video for its players, but it’s more of a one-time lesson, says Johnson-Hostler.
“You don’t learn and change your behavior, about something just because you were told one time,” she says. “That’s why we’re in school for nine months out of the year, right? Because it’s the ongoing learning and repetitive nature of something that we’re trying to ingrain in who we are as people, whether it’s learning, whether it’s culture, and that’s a greater conversation.”
That conversation wouldn’t have been helped by welcoming someone who faces multiple lawsuits for sexual misconduct. The Panthers made the right call in deciding against it. Deshaun Watson might be a step forward on the field at Bank of America Stadium, but it would have been a frustrating step backward for too many others.