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Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games, but Roger Goodell could make that longer.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images (left), Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images (right)

Deshaun Watson keeps winning by the rules and you have to wonder what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell thinks about that?

Actually, if you have followed Goodell’s 16-year run as commissioner of the league, it’s not hard to imagine that Goodell is not happy with Judge Sue Robinson’s decision to ban Watson for six games and not fine him. The announcement came Monday in the latest twist to a two-year story over a series of transgressions that led to 24 women filing civil actions against Watson for various accusations of sexual misconduct, if not outright sexual assault.

None of those cases resulted in criminal charges and, in the end, Robinson was only able to hear evidence on five of the 24 because Watson finally got wise and settled most of them. In fact, as of Monday morning, it was announced that Watson had settled 23 of 24 cases. In addition, the fact that Watson was unable to play last season with Houston because the league effectively kept him off the field is likely not enough to assuage Goodell.

The league issued a statement Monday that hints there’s much more to come.

“We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer, for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson. We appreciate Judge Robinson’s diligence and professionalism throughout this process.
“Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”

Roger Goodell Could End Up Suspending Watson For a Year

Goodell makes an annoucement during the NFL Draft
Photo by Richard Schultz/NFLPhotoLibrary

If you know anything about Goodell, you know that he’s very likely to end up suspending Watson for a year when this is all said and done. That’s because there are two immutable issues with Goodell when it comes to cases like this:

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First, he fully believes that it is his job to “protect the shield” of the NFL. The NFL is the only place that Goodell has ever worked. It is his pride and joy. It is the business that has made him rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Second, he has the leverage and the power to do whatever he wants. And if you have watched Goodell use leverage over his career, he maximizes it at every turn. We saw that earlier this offseason when Goodell suspended Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley for at least one year over betting $1,500 on games on a website that is a partner with the league, at a time when Ridley was not playing, and when he was not with the team.

Yes, gambling is against NFL rules and is serious, but Ridley bet a relatively insignificant sum and did it completely above board on a league-related site. Still, Goodell took him off the field for a year.

By comparison, Watson essentially acted like a sexual predator (or at least like a guy who is super creepy) and has been in the news on almost a weekly basis for nearly two years. Watson spent months denying that he did anything wrong until he finally settled almost all of the cases just in time to have his punishment decided.

Goodell hates that kind of conduct.

Finally, the NFL Players Association, which represents Watson and all the players, basically flaunted Robinson’s decision in Goodell’s face on Sunday night. The union said it would live with the decision AND that the league should do the same. If you know anything about Goodell, he doesn’t like to be told what to do. Especially by the people who gave him the power to do it, which is what NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith did when he negotiated the past two Collective Bargaining Agreements. Smith has forever tried to paint Goodell as the bad guy for punishing players even though it was Smith who gave him the right to do it. Goodell also hates that two-faced approach by Smith.

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But the most important part to all of this is perception. Right now, the perception is that Watson got off with little or no punishment. Never mind the circumstances and the facts that Robinson was able to consider, the public is simply not going to accept that this is the right decision after spending the past two years listening and reading about Watson’s indiscretions.

Deshaun Watson at Cleveland Browns Mandatory Mini Camp
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Additionally, this is the same Watson who had the temerity to complain about playing for Houston one year after signing a monster contract with the team. That happened even before all the allegations of sexual misconduct came out.

Then, even as all of this was unfolding, Watson was traded to Cleveland and used his leverage to get a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract from the Browns. Watson was rewarded with the greatest guarantee in NFL history despite being, in the eyes of the public, a predator or at least a creep.

Among the NFL’s largely conservative fan base, that ain’t gonna fly. Among all the women the NFL is working so hard to attract to the audience, that ain’t gonna fly. Among the dads who hope to take their young, impressionable boys to the game and who don’t want to answer questions about what is a “happy ending,” that ain’t gonna fly.

In that way, this isn’t much different than the Ezequiel Elliott case, when Goodell suspended the Dallas running back for six games and fought in the courts to uphold the suspension. In fact, that suspension caused a huge public rift between Goodell and Dallas owner Jerry Jones.

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The bottom line is that Goodell can’t let the perception be that he allowed this to happen. If Goodell ultimately loses in court, that doesn’t bother him. He would rather be perceived as Bulldog Drummond than as Mahatma Ghandi (a couple of references that could send you young folks flying to the Google machine).

In Goodell’s world, he needs to show the NFL-loving public that he is protecting the morals and principles of this great nation and the game itself — even as his bosses like Dan Snyder, Jimmy Haslam, Stephen Ross, Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft sometimes make a mockery of them.

Thus, it is hard to see this decision holding up. Perhaps Goodell will just want it to go away and have the football-loving public just move on.

But if you’ve watched Goodell for 16 years, you know that’s highly unlikely.

MORE: Assessing the Deshaun Watson Trade: Why Cleveland Could Win “Two or Three Titles”

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Jason Cole has covered the NFL since 1992 and has been a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 2012. He is the author of seven books, including the biography of John Elway (Elway: A Relentless Life).
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