what we reward

As oft articulated here, this is not a sports story. You need not possess any zeal for any athletic entity and have interest in today’s conversation. Today we’re talking about when sports becomes too important… or rather… when sports — or profitability — trumps ethics and integrity.

At approximately 1:00 PM EST today, kickoff will commence at NRG Stadium. It’s the Cleveland Browns vs. the Houston Texans. And for the first time since the 2020 season, the very talented Derrick Deshaun Watson will step onto the gridiron to quarterback his team. Granted, he’ll be quarterbacking his new team against his old team. 

Deshaun Watson sat out the entire 2021 season not due to Covid but on the contrary, because the Texans chose to pay him but not play him. Watson was accused by over two dozen female massage therapists of sexual harassment and/or assault. Those privy to the testimonies of the accusers claim significant similarity of details when comparing the individual accounts. Watson, however, has denied any wrongdoing, despite financially settling over 20 of the disputes. My point, no less, is not to disparage Watson. I will only add from an admittedly distant perspective, when there’s that much smoke, there’s typically some sort of fire.

But as aforementioned, the point is not the player. It’s what happened next.

After sitting out the season due to the accusations of unquestionable iniquitous behavior, there was a bidding war for Watson’s professional football services. It would be unfair to target solely the Browns. Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans were each also active solicitors. Minnesota, Seattle and Tampa Bay likewise inquired about a trade.

The contract then subsequently agreed to between the Cleveland Browns and Deshaun Watson was this: a fully guaranteed, 5-year, $230,000,000 contract with a $44,965,000 signing bonus. Negotiated prior to the league’s discipline decision, contractual language was included — and to better make my point — and agreed to by the Browns — that Watson would not have to forfeit the signing bonus nor future guarantees should the NFL suspend him. “Fully guaranteed” means that the “player will receive every single dollar from that portion.”

There are indeed multiple perspectives intriguing to pursue in this story. One could easily examine the glaring inconsistency of the NFL’s player conduct policy and punishment system. Watson was eventually handed down an 11 game suspension. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, on the other hand, made the disastrous mistake of betting a total of $1500 on his own team to win. He was suspended for 17 games. Alas, we’ll attempt to not be lured by the tangent perspectives.

Those familiar with NFL contracts and salary caps would share that Watson had to play 6 games this year, as otherwise, his number counting against the cap would have given the Browns a $20 million competitive advantage in the succeeding year. But understand, that’s because of how the Browns structured the contract. It didn’t have to be this way.

I suppose that’s what perplexes me… and why I felt propelled to make this an actual post. I just think in our society, we sometimes value the wrong things.

Clearly, the Browns’ motive is winning. And again, no need to throw any stones; they are by no means alone in that. It’s as if Coach Vince Lombardi’s infamous statement that “winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing” has morphed from a clever sports mantra to an acceptable social ethic. Sometimes, clearly, winning is too important.

When winning becomes too important, we excuse character and behavior that we know to be otherwise illicit. We turn a blind eye to things we would otherwise not accept. We act as if things aren’t that bad when they really are. We do it in our sports. We do it in our politics. Sometimes we do it in our personal lives as well.

USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour wrote, “If Watson were anything but an athlete, prospective employers and co-workers would be trying to get as much distance from him as possible. But because he’s a special talent, in a league where quarterbacks are king, and at 26 has another decade or so left to play, there is almost nothing he can do that won’t be forgiven.”

If I’m honest, I deeply believe that for some, forgiveness can be a vital, unprecedented prompt to finally get it, so-to-speak, and turn your life around. No, I don’t have a problem with what we forgive. I have a problem with what we reward.