Watch CBS News

Hurley: Deshaun Watson Shadow Ban From NFL Seems To Be In Effect

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- "We are a league of rules" is something that Roger Goodell loves to utter into NFL-branded microphones quite often. The rules apply to everyone, the rules are the rules, rules rules rules rules. The NFL loves rules.

But the NFL does not have rules for everything. You can look at Deshaun Watson for the latest example.

The Texans quarterback remains in football limbo as he faces 22 civil lawsuits from women claiming they were sexually assaulted by Watson. These claims are disturbing, to say the least. Having a young star quarterback on the field and on TV every weekend amid those unresolved claims would, of course, present an image problem for the National Football League.

At the same time, indefinitely suspending a player with a finite window to play football before an official judgment has been made on the accusations would create a difficult precedent for the NFL to enforce.

So, what is a league to do?

In the case of Watson, commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't had to do anything. The Texans are taking care of that for him.

The Texans organization has simply been paying Watson every week to not play, practice, or be a part of the team. Watson is spending his days doing ... whatever it is that he does. And he's making more than $10 million to do it. Texans owner Cal McNair hasn't complained about it, and the NFL has enjoyed that story largely staying out of the headlines -- even if the Texans' stadium is half-empty every week.

That peaceful status was threatened to change this week, with Tuesday's trade deadline. Based on reports, the Dolphins did some real due diligence with Watson, going so far as speaking with him and seeking an answer from the NFL on Watson's availability to actually play this season.

Reports also indicated that the NFL had no intention of resolving that matter right now. The status quo of what is effectively a shadow ban is much more preferable to the league.

For the NFL and Goodell, the current situation -- as Albert Breer described it -- is a "win." That's a rather unsavory word to describe a situation involving nearly two-dozen claims of sexual assault, but the league tends to concern itself with image over substance at all times. Things like "morality," "ethics" or "human decency" rarely, if ever, enter the equation.

It's reminiscent of Antonio Brown's situation a couple of years ago. The Patriots released the wide receiver after a civil lawsuit accusing him of rape and sexual assault. A Sports Illustrated article also published threatening texts sent by Brown to another woman who had accused him of sexual assault.

The Patriots released him, because the silly controversies of frozen feet and helmet complaints could be managed. Credible accusations of sexual assault created a different situation entirely.

Yet after that release, no NFL team signed the 31-year-old receiver who had averaged 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns per year over the previous six seasons. He was there to be signed ... and nobody touched him. Because the league, in a sort-of-saying-it-without-actually-saying-it kind of way, gave off the impression that Brown would be placed on the commissioner's exempt list if a team signed him. So teams were essentially told they could sign him, but he wouldn't be able to play for them.

Best to just not sign him, right? No need to create a whole thing. 

And that was the message publicly. Behind closed doors, the message from the NFL to team owners was likely a bit more blunt.

(You could ride the theory out for the Colin Kaepernick situation, but any and all mention of his name tends to bring about a muddled conversation. At the very least, these cases of NFL owners politely operating on the peripheries of the letterhead do present a reasonable case that they can decide which players are allowed to play in the league, even if they don't say it aloud.)

This current matter is, of course, complicated. Reading the details of all of the accusations, they seem to be quite credible and very disturbing. But Watson is maintaining his complete innocence, and he's decided to fight the accusations in court. That process takes a long time to play out. Fortunately for the ever-PR-conscious NFL, there's an owner in Houston who inherited the team from his father who is all too happy to help out the league by placing a large curtain in front of the problem.

In the meanwhile, if the Dolphins were to send a huge package to Houston to acquire Watson, then Miami would naturally want the football player to play football. The NFL's seemingly intentional method of obscuring any potential resolution will help to ensure that such a scenario never becomes a problem. The Dolphins won't pay a premium without a resolution, and the Texans won't trade a franchise quarterback without a resolution.

Ergo, the NFL gives no resolution. Problem solved.

The NFL is a league of rules, and the rules apply to everyone equally. Except when they don't.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.