No matter how you slice it, the trade for Deshaun Watson by the Cleveland Browns was a terrible move. You could say the Browns sold their soul — if they had one.
Even if the Browns have no moral compunction about hiring a man who is being sued by 22 women for sexual misconduct — that’s TWENTY-TWO, all of them telling the same story — then certainly they might have given some attention to the optics. It looks bad. ESPN’s Molly Qerim called it a “slap in the face to all women.”
And the Browns simply don’t care.
Even in an era when saying or doing the “wrong” thing — when something as simple as getting a pronoun wrong — can get you canceled, the Browns thumbed their nose at the nation’s sensibilities and did it anyway — and did so with relatively little blowback.
The Browns are selectively woke, like so many others (see NBA and China).
The Browns said they went to great lengths to vet Watson. Team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam posted a statement claiming they had done “extensive investigative, legal and reference work” before trading for Watson. Who did they talk to, his mom?! His attorney? Here’s who they didn’t talk to: Watson’s accusers and the lawyer who represents all of them, Tony Buzbee, who said no team has contacted him about the quarterback.
“The Browns organization did not reach out to me. I didn’t expect them to do so, and can understand why they didn’t. But, knowing what I know, they probably should have,” Buzbee told ESPN.
The Browns doubled-down on the Watson trade when they negotiated his deal. They awarded him a fully guaranteed, $230 million contract — by far the most guaranteed money ever given to an NFL player — that does an end-run around any penalties the league might exact in the future. As if anticipating a suspension by the NFL, the Browns gave him a contract that pays him only $1 million of that $230 million the first year, protecting him against a league suspension. That kills any penalty the NFL can exact beyond playing time.
(Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous), the Hollywood writer and producer, noted that there is an easy way to remember the details of Watson’s new contract — “he gets a $10M signing bonus and then an additional $10M for every woman who has accused him of sexual assault.”)
Even from a football perspective, this is an awful move. The Browns cast aside Baker Mayfield, a capable if unspectacular quarterback who in 2021 led the Browns to their first playoff win in 26 years, and traded away six draft picks — three in the first round (in 2022, 2023, 2024), one in the third round (2023), and two in the fourth round (2022, 2024) — to obtain Watson from the Texans. That is a steep price.
And this is why they are THE BROWNS, one of the most hapless franchises in professional sports (four winning seasons in 30 years). They mortgaged the future for one player. Beginning in 2023, his salary will account for 25% of the current salary cap for the Browns. According to Spotrac, only three teams have won a Super Bowl with a quarterback whose salary topped 13% of the team’s salary cap — Peyton Manning (18.8), Matt Ryan (15.3), Peyton Manning (14.16).
But Watson hasn’t been convicted of anything yet, you’re saying. Nor will he. The criminal cases against Watson were dropped. The civil lawsuits are continuing. Look, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. TWENTY-TWO fires. And the NFL punished other players who were not convicted of crimes — Ray Rice, Kareem Hunt, for instance (both whom were caught on security cameras assaulting women).
The Browns have been down this road previously. A few years ago, Hunt, a star running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, shoved and kicked a woman in the face. The Chiefs dumped him. Guess who signed him. The Browns. The NFL ended up suspending him for the first eight games of the 2019 season.
In 2021, the Browns also signed free-agent defensive tackle Malik McDowell, a former second-round draft pick of the Seahawks and another bad actor. McDowell had been charged in 2019 with a DUI offense, obstructing justice and assaulting a police officer, which included fighting with police after he had been tasered.
He was caught two months later driving a stolen truck and later charged additionally with receiving stolen property. He was sentenced to 11 months in jail and three years’ probation. He started for the Browns last season, but in January he was arrested for aggravated battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and public exposure. McDowell is now a free agent.
Now the Browns have signed another troubled player. As Sports Illustrated’s Ron Borges wrote, by signing Watson “they chose a guy who refused to play for his team (the Texans) a year ago, demanded out less than a year after he signed a long-term deal, told the Browns they were out of the running for his services, and then a day later signed with them.”