Saturday, June 25, 2022 | 2 a.m.
The headline — Deshaun Watson settles 20 of 24 sexual misconduct lawsuits against him — suggests sports’ saddest saga and the NFL’s current biggest embarrassment is nearing an end.
And this is no victory lap for the embattled Cleveland Browns quarterback.
Three months ago, in his introductory news conference in Cleveland after the trade from Houston, Watson was asked specifically if he would attempt to settle the civil suits filed against him alleging grossly inappropriate behavior during massage therapy sessions.
“That’s not my intent,” he said. “My intent is to continue to clear my name as much as possible, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
Watson knew it then: When you try to settle cases, i.e. pay money to make them go away, you are not so much “clearing your name” as you are seeming to concede wrongdoing — by perception, at least.
Just this month he made clear again that settling the cases was not the plan.
Then came Tuesday and Tony Buzbee, attorney for the all of the plaintiffs, announced 20 had agreed to settle.
Also this month, Watson finally admitted regrets, acknowledging at least a smidgen of responsibility for this mess.
“I do understand that I do have regrets as far as the impact on the community and people outside of just myself,” he said. “That includes my family. That includes this organization. That includes my teammates that have to answer these questions. That includes the fan base of the Cleveland Browns.”
That did not include the two dozen women suing him, rather notably. No regrets there.
But now he wants to pay them for their troubles rather than “clear his name” by hoping a jury might agree 24 women are all lying while he, the real victim, is telling the truth.
Smart move. A concession to reality, as the Akron Beacon-Journal publishes a new investigative report outlining many of the allegations in graphic detail.
Watson’s troubles have hardly gone away.
Four civil suits remain, including that of Ashley Solis, the first woman to file a lawsuit, to identify herself as a plaintiff and to speak publicly.
“Ashley Solis is one of the heroes of this story,” Buzbee said. “Her case has not settled and thus her story and that of the other three brave women will continue. I look forward to trying these cases.”
There also is the possibility of other, new cases being filed.
Legal maneuvering may also be in play under Rule 167 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. Under this rule, Watson could maker an offer to the remaining four plaintiffs and, if the plaintiffs in a trial ultimately recovered less than 80% of that offer, the plaintiffs would then be liable for all litigation costs incurred by Watson from the time the offer was rejected.
I know, seems Byzantine. Strangely punishes the plaintiffs. Welcome to Texas!
All of this plays out among lawyers as the NFL moves closer to announcing whether its investigation will lead to punishment for Watson under the league’s personal conduct policy. A substantial penalty is anticipated, including a major fine and perhaps a one-year (full season) suspension.
What has been missing through all of this is any sense of mea culpa from Watson himself.
That is understandable. Spending big to settle cases against you might imply guilt, but to admit it outright of course would be used against him as Exhibit A in the remaining four civil suits. It also would likely make the NFL come down with a bigger hammer in its punishment.
The situation is an uncomfortable conundrum for Watson, though — to admit zero wrongdoing as 24 women line up against you with explicit accusations even as you try to pay them to drop said cases.
It might be after the civil trials have ended, but at some point Watson needs to try honesty and remorse. Unless 24 women are all lying, he had a creepy predilection to find sexual kicks during massage sessions. He got caught. The women say he wanted to expose himself? Well, he got exposed alright.
Tiger Woods had a sex addiction. Admitted it. Got therapy. America forgave him. Embraced the contrition. He found a path back to being beloved.
Deshaun Watson might take a lesson if the idea is closure, of getting past this for real.
Before all of the settlements, he talked about “clearing his name.”
Unless 24 women are lying, he will never do it without a starting point of remorse, of apology.
Greg Cote is a columnist for the Miami Herald.