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Deshaun Watson’s Apology Undercuts the N.F.L.’s Message

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When Roger Goodell became N.F.L. commissioner in 2006, he made it clear that one in all his biggest priorities can be to police players whose actions might tarnish the league’s rigorously crafted image.

In the last decade and a half since, Goodell has leaned heavily on a player’s contrition when determining what penalties to evaluate. As a rule of thumb, players who apologized and promised to learn from their mistakes have been treated more evenly than those that refused to sincerely come clean with their wrongdoing.

But Goodell’s seek for remorse has obvious limits, because the settlement with Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson once more showed. On Thursday, the league said that Watson can be suspended for 11 games and pay a record $5 million effective after greater than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct in massage appointments.

The league had previously argued that Watson deserved to be suspended indefinitely, partially because he refused to apologize for his actions, something that unnerved advocates for victims of sexual abuse in addition to one woman who has not settled with the quarterback. Indeed, Watson insisted quite a few times that he did nothing fallacious.

With the specter of more severe penalties looming, Watson finally issued an apology last Friday.

“I need to say that I’m truly sorry to all the women that I even have impacted in this example,” Watson said in an interview with the Browns broadcast team. “The selections that I made in my life that put me on this position, I might definitely wish to have back, but I need to proceed to maneuver forward and grow and learn and show that I’m a real person of character.”

In signing off on the settlement, Goodell looked as if it would think that apology was sufficient.

“Deshaun has committed to doing the exertions on himself that’s vital for his return to the N.F.L.,” Goodell said in his statement announcing the settlement.

Watson issued his own written statement expressing remorse, nevertheless it was quickly overshadowed by his own, more candid words minutes later.

“I’ve all the time stood on my innocence and all the time said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I’m continuing to face on that,” he said after a reporter asked why he accepted the suspension and effective after long insisting he had done nothing fallacious.

The episode raised fresh questions on the utility of Goodell’s extracting of apologies from players accused of wrongdoing. While showing remorse can signal that a player recognizes the necessity to change his behavior, an apology may help the league manage the crisis publicly.

“There is likely to be many other motivations for asking for an apology, including that it’s good public relations,” said Jodi Balsam, who was a lawyer on the N.F.L. and now teaches at Brooklyn Law School.

But when a player cannot even apologize sincerely, there’s little hope that he’ll absorb any of the teachings of treatment.

“One thing that anyone who’s been in therapy knows is, should you don’t think you wish help, counseling is a whole waste of time,” Deborah Epstein, the co-director of the Domestic Violence Clinic on the Georgetown University Law Center, said. “For Goodell to trumpet the penalty is senseless if Watson goes to deny any responsibility.”

Epstein advised the N.F.L. Players Association on domestic violence after video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée was published in 2014. But Epstein left that role in frustration because, she said, the league and union were more concerned about protecting players than in truly grappling with the profound problem of violence against women.

Epstein’s hunch was confirmed in March when quite a few teams scrambled to trade for Watson once it was clear he wouldn’t face criminal charges. The Browns ultimately won that bidding war, and the team’s owners, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, have covered for Watson, proclaiming that he was remorseful when he said clearly that he was not.

The Haslams stood next to Watson as he repeated his innocence, then said the quiet part out loud: Watson’s behavior must be minimized because he’s a talented athlete.

“Is he never speculated to play again? Is he never speculated to be a part of society?” Jimmy Haslam said. “I feel it’s necessary to recollect, Deshaun is 26 years old, OK, and is a high level N.F.L. quarterback, and we’re planning on him being our quarterback for a very long time.”

Balsam said that the owners, of their rush to sign Watson, undermined Goodell’s pursuit of an indefinite suspension, and until that dynamic changes, the league might be constrained in its discipline of players.

“There must be a change of heart by the owners, but they’re all the time looking over their shoulders that another person will get bargain basement talent,” she said. “There’s lots of mixed messages, and I don’t blame the victims for being disturbed.”

One in all the accusers continues to be disturbed. While 23 of 24 women have settled their cases against Watson, Lauren Baxley has held out because she said Watson had not sufficiently acknowledged what he was accused of doing.

“I even have rejected all settlement offers, partially because they’ve not included any sincere acknowledgment of remorse and wrongdoings, nor have they included any guarantees of rehabilitative treatment,” Baxley wrote on the Every day Beast website.

Even the perfect trained experts cannot know with certainty whether an apology is sincere. What they give the impression of being for, though, are actions that back up an apology, like commitment to treatment programs.

“I don’t know the way you X-ray into someone’s soul,” said Judy Harris Kluger, a former prosecutor who ran a sex crimes unit and is now the manager director of Sanctuary for Families, a gaggle that helps victims of domestic violence. “It’s the person’s actions that inform you whether or not they are contrite or apologetic. But here, it’s the other.”

Jenny Vrentas contributed reporting.

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