Just two weeks ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell declared that the league’s Deshaun Watson investigation was winding down.
The probe of allegations of varying degrees of sexual assault and misconduct was approaching its 15th month, the league had secured interviews with more than half of the women with civil lawsuits pending against Watson and investigators had questioned the Cleveland Browns quarterback for three days, concluding those meetings on a note that suggested a decision was close.
“I think we’re nearing the end of the investigative period,” Goodell said May 24. “Then it will be handled by our disciplinary officer.”
Since then: A "Real Sports" report featuring interviews with two of Watson’s accusers, a fresh pair of lawsuits that brought Watson’s total pending litigation to 24 cases and a New York Times report that comprehensively detailed claims of the quarterback’s behavior, as well as allegations against those who may have enabled it.
That’s a lot of information in two weeks, even if it’s fair to assume the league’s investigators had already unearthed some of the allegations that the public is only now becoming familiar with. But it leads to fair questions, too.
Could Roger Goodell place Deshaun Watson on commissioner's exempt list?
If even a small amount of new information has been brought to the NFL's attention in these past two weeks, can it reasonably close the investigation when it appears the number of Watson’s civil cases could feasibly continue to rise in the coming months? And if the league can’t reasonably conclude its probe, should Goodell utilize the commissioner’s exempt list, which is a more expansive tool than many have framed it?
For its part, the league isn’t commenting on the probe, except to say that it is ongoing. This has been the party line for the past 15 months.
As for the commissioner’s exempt list, the NFL isn’t saying anything at all. That can be absorbed two ways: Either the league is defaulting to what Goodell said on March 29 — when he said Watson would not go on the exempt list — or it means the league is keeping its options open as circumstances potentially change.
Here’s what Goodell said about Watson and the exempt list in March:
“The civil cases were in play over the last year,” Goodell said. “The only thing that’s changed is the criminal element has been at least resolved, and that was an important element in the context of the commissioner’s exempt list as discussed with the Players Association. … If the criminal [complaints] had proceeded, that more than likely would have triggered the commissioner exempt. I think at this point, the civil case in and of itself would not do that. If there’s a violation of the personal conduct policy … that more than likely [will] trigger some kind of discipline in some fashion.”
In plain English for everyone to understand: Goodell is basing the exempt list — which is basically a suspension with pay — as a tool that would be used only if the season were starting and Watson were under a criminal investigation. He’s apparently not counting, by his own words, the civil cases as triggering the exempt list as a necessity. It’s notable that he also says “as discussed with the Players Association.”
But here’s precisely what the exempt list rule states in terms of when it can be applied:
“First, when a player is formally charged with a crime of violence, meaning that he is accused of having used physical force or a weapon to injure or threaten another person, of having engaged in a sexual assault by force or a sexual assault of a person who was incapable of giving consent, of having engaged in other conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety or well-being of another person, or of having engaged in animal abuse. The formal charges may be in the form of an indictment by a grand jury, the filing of charges by a prosecutor, or an arraignment in a criminal court.
"Second, when an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this Policy by committing any of the conduct identified above, he may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so. This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.”
Focus on the line “may have violated this Policy by committing any of the conduct identified above."
Following that application and being guided by the interviews and evidence the league has attained, Goodell basically has a checklist of questions about what Watson “may” have done:
“May” he have used physical force or a weapon to injure or threaten another person?
“May” he have engaged in a sexual assault by force or a sexual assault of a person who was incapable of giving consent?
“May” he have engaged in other conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety or well-being of another person?
If investigators determine that Watson “may” have violated any of those standards, Goodell has an argument for placing Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list. And the rule essentially proves that point with a follow-up declaration that is written in clear cover-your-ass legalese:
“This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.”
Of course, all of this could be also be a moot point.
Latest revelations might not be new to NFL
It stands to reason that a multibillion dollar corporation such as the NFL has the money and the investigative expertise to have already procured everything and more that was published in The New York Times on Tuesday. It also stands to reason that same NFL probe could have already secured interviews with the two accusers who appeared on "Real Sports," as well as the two women who filed the 23rd and 24th lawsuits. Not to mention the league could've received copies of all of Watson’s completed depositions, portions of which have now been leaked to a handful of news organizations.
If the league already has those things in hand, then Goodell’s sentiment about the commissioner’s exempt list and Watson’s future remain sound. But only because the league knows everything that’s out in the public space and much more from its own proprietary work.
If it does, then the investigation moves into its final phase and judgement is rendered on whether or not Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
If the NFL has been caught by surprise in the past two weeks, if there are elements in the lawsuits or reports that is new information, a speedy decision on Watson’s NFL future will mirror the quarterback’s legal future.
More complicated by the week.