How NOT to talk about the Deshaun Watson allegations

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Nineteen women have accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and misconduct.

Nineteen women have accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and misconduct.
Photo: Getty Images

On Sunday, three new lawsuits were filed against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, all three accusing Watson of sexual assault and sexual misconduct by women who worked as massage therapists for him at one time or another. That brings the grand total of lawsuits filed against Watson, alleging substantially the same pattern of behavior, to 19. And yesterday, Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas reported on yet another alleged victim, who has not filed suit against Watson, who made similar allegations about the NFL star’s behavior during the fall of 2019.

As someone who has worked both as a defense attorney for men accused of sexual assault and represented victims of sexual assault in seeking orders of protection against their rapists, I often struggle with how to talk about sexual assault allegations in a way that is fair to both the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victims. On one hand, we’re typically dealing with an enormous inequity in resources. Star athletes have not only attorneys, but publicists, agents, advertisers, their team, their league, and their teammates on their side — not to mention legions of fans with no compunction about brutally harassing a victim, both online and in real life. On the other hand, sexual assault is an ugly allegation. And while I’m unwilling to say allegations “ruin the lives” of famous men (have we actually ever seen that?), no one deserves to be accused of something they didn’t do.

So maybe it’s easier to discuss how NOT to talk about the Deshaun Watson case —and this goes for both the media and for fans.

First off, if you have no background in the dynamics of sexual assault, trauma, or the legal system, are you the best person to be weighing in with your opinion to begin with? The reason I’m asking, in addition to Adam Schefter’s horrific softball interview with Greg Hardy (which I’m still mad about, thanks for asking), is an article posted in the Houston Chronicle about Watson that writer Jessica Luther rightfully called out on Twitter:

The entire thread is a worthwhile critique of how the media covers allegations against athletes, and raises the curious question: Why do outlets think sportswriters are the best people to cover allegations of crimes by athletes, particularly when they have no real knowledge or expertise in law or the dynamics of violence against women? I wouldn’t dive into a piece on orthopedic surgery without consulting a few experts, because I have no idea what I’m talking about. But every man who works in sports media believes himself well able to weigh in on sexual assault and domestic violence, experience and expertise be damned.

Secondly, don’t throw conspiracy theories into the wind. There was never any evidence that the Texans, as strained as their relationship with Watson may be, orchestrated a scheme to take Watson down, went out and found 20 women and a lawyer who agreed to go along with it, and are running some kind of grift to take Watson down. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in movies, not real life. I was appalled to see some who position themselves as sports law experts tweeting out things like “this smells fishy,” or “something is off about this.” No kidding, something is off, it’s that 20 women all have substantially similar claims about Deshaun Watson sexually harassing and assaulting them during what is supposed to be a medical procedure. That’s messed up. We’re in Bill Cosby/Harvey Weinstein territory here in terms of sheer numbers.

And here’s something else, despite the narrative that a certain kind of person loves to throw around, there are relatively few false allegations when it comes to sexual assault. And no more than there are with any other type of crime, even when a rich and famous athlete is involved. Take a look at some of the comments about the victims floating around on social media, and you can understand why accusing a famous athlete of wrongdoing is a terrifying concept for any woman. Despite attempts to remain anonymous, their names always get out and the harassment always begins.

And no, it’s not “fishy” that so many of the alleged victims have the same lawyer, and if you say that, I’m going to assume you’ve never practiced law in any meaningful way. Victims bring other victims to their lawyer. Victims see a lawyer on TV and reach out, knowing they’ll be believed, because that lawyer has already believed others.

It’s already been reported that Watson has reached out to many of the women to attempt to settle their claims (an allegation that has been denied by Watson’s lawyer and which wouldn’t be an indication of guilt, anyway). Don’t be the person who says things like “if he’s innocent, why does he have a lawyer?” or “if he’s innocent, why is he trying to settle the cases?” This is how the American justice system works. Unless you’re in criminal court, when you accuse a person of wrongdoing, they can either insist on going to trial, which is risky, expensive, and can expose all kinds of things that are nobody’s business, or they open their checkbook and write the accuser a check. It’s how we settle our grievances. The same goes for the “money grab” comments that are always used against women when they seek redress for sexual assault or harassment. In America in 2021, damages are almost always assessed in dollars.

And finally, it’s fine to “wait for all the facts to come out,” but know that the “facts” will likely never come out, at least not a set of facts that everyone will agree upon. The NFL will likely investigate and come out with a report that each side will have definite opinions about. The lawsuits filed against Watson will likely settle. In the end, we probably won’t know much more than we do now, which is part of the reason allegations against famous people are so frustrating: We never actually know what happened and we never get any closure. Don’t use “wait for all the facts to come out” as a way to silence people whose opinions you don’t like.

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