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The founder of the United States' largest anti-sexual assault organization called on the NFL to appeal the six-game suspension handed down Monday to Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns QB accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct.
Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of RAINN, told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview that “the length of the suspension was really disappointing,” and said: “We'd love to see the NFL appeal this and push for the longer suspension.”
In disciplinary proceedings, the NFL “recommended” that an independent arbitrator levy a year-long suspension, and that Watson “not be permitted to return unless he satisfies any conditions imposed for reinstatement.” The NFL Players Association, which advocated on Watson’s behalf, pushed for leniency. Sue Robinson, the former federal judge tabbed by the NFL and NFLPA to hear the case, settled on six games.
Berkowitz, speaking three hours after the ruling, reasoned that a year-long suspension was “the minimum that should have been put into place, given the seriousness of [Watson’s actions].”
“There's no length that will make up for the harm that he's done to these dozens of women,” he said. “But I think at least a year makes a pretty strong statement that this is not gonna be tolerated.”
The six games, on the other hand, “unfortunately mirrors what we experience in the criminal justice system,” Donisha Greene, the director of community engagement at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said in an interview. “It sends a message to the community that those who are in a position of power and celebrity are not held accountable for their actions when they commit violence against others.”
The importance of the suspension length, Berkowitz said, is twofold: “We want to see something as close to justice as possible in this particular case. I think [Watson’s] victims deserve that. But also, it's cases like this that shape what the public knows about sexual violence, and helps influence whether survivors come forward and report in cases that don't make the front page.”
The Watson case, Berkowitz and two Cleveland-area crisis center directors said, can also be triggering for sexual assault survivors. The two local advocates said they did not feel qualified to recommend a length or type of punishment, but they’d been following the case since the Browns traded for Watson, in part because clients have been “impacted,” said Ashley Kline, the director of services at the Hope & Healing Survivor Resource Center in Akron.
“As they see other women experiencing similar forms of sexual misconduct or sexual violence,” Kline said, “they see and they feel pieces of themselves in others when these stories make the news continuously.”
In justifying the six-game suspension, Robinson, the arbitrator, cited precedent and distinguished between violent and non-violent sexual assault.
“It is undisputed that Mr. Watson’s conduct does not fall into the category of violent conduct that would require the minimum 6-game suspension,” she wrote. “It likewise is undisputed that prior cases involving non-violent sexual assault have resulted in discipline far less severe than what the NFL proposes here.”
Anti-sexual assault advocates, however, push back against the use of the term “non-violent.” The general phrasing, Greene said, “perpetuates a pattern in where we shift the blame from perpetrators to victims.” Watson’s actions, Kline said, are “on the continuum of sexual violence.”
“Oftentimes people think of violent crimes as only being an actual rape,” Kline explained, “but we have this whole continuum of other coercive behaviors on that continuum of sexual violence that can be just as impactful and harmful to people.”
And no matter the exact nature of the misconduct, survivors across the continuum can be affected by high-profile cases, Kline added. “Because all these different forms are under the same umbrella term, their impacts can be felt similarly. So whether it be mental health-wise, emotional health, trauma symptoms, that's what tends to get triggered with news like this.”
Berkowitz, the RAINN president, concluded: “While there may not have been excessive physical injuries, that doesn't mean that the crime itself was non-violent.”
Robinson acknowledged in her ruling that “it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct.” But she did not believe it was appropriate, she wrote, “to do so without notice of the extraordinary change [compared to precedent] this position portends for the NFL and its players.”
The NFL countered with the logic that Watson’s conduct was “unprecedented.” Even considering the testimony of just four of the 24 women who sued Watson, an NFL investigator argued, “we haven’t had someone who over the course of a year-plus time … [committed] sexual assault against four different people.”
Robinson, in settling on six games, acknowledged that “Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”
If the NFL chooses to appeal Robinson’s ruling, it must do so within three days.
If it does, the final suspension decision would then be passed to league commissioner Roger Goodell or his chosen designee. Following that, the lone avenue for Watson’s camp and the NFLPA to fight any suspension would be to attempt to overturn the ruling via lawsuit in federal court.