This week the Cleveland Browns signed Deshaun Watson to a $250 million dollar contract, currently the largest in the NFL. Watson, while arguably one of the best quarterbacks in football, is accused of sexual misconduct with over 20 different women, making him not only a questionable signing, but even more disturbing to some is the fact that at this moment he is also the highest paid player in the league. Critics of Watson are shocked and feel that his character and the alleged violations compromise the expected integrity and public perception of the NFL, while fans in favor of the Browns decision to sign Watson argue he gives the franchise the best chance at winning a championship — something they have not done since 1964. Where should sports teams draw the line when it comes to integrity, character, and violations with the law? While Deshaun Watson is the story this week, there have been many athletes before him with equally troubling experiences, yet were still able to keep their sports careers alive based on their athletic skills.
Nothing seems to matter if you are talented
Deshaun Watson is already being seen as a savior by some Browns fans, and these supporters appear to be more enthused about the greater potential to win than they are troubled with any of the civil allegations Watson still faces. Winning is what matters, and the reason why they do not care about Watson’s behaviors off the field. Interestingly, Watson is not the first athlete to face public scrutiny over off-field transgressions, as one needs to go no further than the Browns team bench to find teammate Kareem Hunt who had his own issues in 2019 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. But the list does not stop there — in fact, there is a growing list of current and former professional athletes, management, and even owners from all sports who have crossed various lines, yet still played and/or ran professional sports, including Ben Roethlisberger, the late Kobe Bryant, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, Michael Vick, Joe Mixon, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and John Rocker to name a few. The athletes mentioned (and there are countless more not mentioned) may have faced varying degrees of resistance from fans and critics, yet each was able to continue playing. Does character matter? If we are looking at previous examples of how these issues have been consistently handled, the answer appears to be directly tied to talent and the ability to win games and drive revenue.
Should character matter?
For years the assumption had always been that being a role model went hand-in-hand with being a visible athlete, and for the most part pro and college teams tried to uphold that image. Anymore, though, it seems that because of the massive potential revenues to be gained through sport success, increasingly more college and pro teams lower their expectations relating to role modelling, professionalism, and charterer. It should be noted that while the Cleveland Browns are taking all the criticism regarding Deshaun Watson, it was reported that between 10-15 additional NFL teams were interested in signing him, providing ample evidence that the issue of character is a league-wide issue.
Should off-field issues matter when it comes to our sports entertainment? The answer to that will be witnessed through ticket sales and future profits made by pro and college teams, and college and pro football are currently enjoying their highest ratings ever. The reality is that as long as fans continue to buy what is being sold, the less likely pro and college teams will hold athletes accountable for off-field transgressions.