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Deshaun Watson returns to the NFL after sexual misconduct allegations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier today, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson returned to the field after an 11-game suspension, leading his team to a decisive victory over his former team, the Houston Texans. Despite the win, his on-field performance was mixed after the long layoff. But it's his off-field behavior we want to focus on now. That's because the suspension, along with a $5 million fine, was imposed by the NFL after more than two dozen female massage therapists accused Watson of behavior ranging from wildly inappropriate to sexual assault - that during his time with the Texans. He has not faced criminal charges. In fact, two grand juries in Texas declined to issue indictments. But the NFL ruled that Watson violated their personal conduct policy.

But while the suspension is over, the controversy remains over how the NFL handles allegations of misconduct by players and other personnel, especially when it comes to their behavior toward women. Kevin Blackistone is a sports columnist for The Washington Post, a panelist on ESPN and a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, and I called him for his take on this story, especially aspects of it that he thinks may have been overlooked or that people just don't want to talk about. And he started by saying that even for the media, these are difficult conversations.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It is all very, very painful and unsettling. But what do you do? Does this mean he can no longer play the game of football? Does this mean that any employee anywhere in this country who comes under the same sort of - finds him or herself in the same situation can no longer be employed, can no longer go to school? It's troubling all the way around.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that we called you is that you often are willing to discuss things related to the sports world that other people are not. And it seems to me that there are parallel conversations going on about Deshaun Watson and others who have found themselves in similar situations. It seems that on the one hand, there's the polite conversation and there's the accepted conversation, and then there's a whole other conversation that takes place within these worlds that the polite conversation doesn't include. And one of those less attractive conversations, or maybe the sort of the not-polite conversation, is about the degree to which professional athletes who often are very young and suddenly very rich are the target of a lot of people who want to be around them.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so I just, you know - and I'm just having to ask you about that. This is not to imply that these complainants are not being truthful about their experiences, but it is to say that - is there something about the world that these young men are in that allows them to think that this behavior is OK?

BLACKISTONE: I think so. The better you become - or oftentimes this is the case - the better you become as an athlete, from being a young kid to a teenager to a college superstar and into the pros, you become more and more isolated, I believe, from reality. Your circle becomes tighter. It becomes a circle of people who worship you, who are your yes men and women. And I do think that that's part of the problem.

MARTIN: And can I ask you this? Is this a football problem, is this a really rich young guy problem, or is this something else?

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, I don't think it's a football problem. I think he just happens to be a football player. I would say it's - I would say it has to do with masculinity and money because we've seen this happen before with people. I mean, I think about - and this is the criminal side of it - but you think about someone like Bill Cosby and, you know, many of us wondered the same thing that you just wondered about Bill Cosby. You know, one of the things about Deshaun Watson is when Deshaun Watson came out of college, you know, he was quite polished, you know, clean-cut, good-looking, well-spoken guy. And, you know, talk about not judging a book by its cover. He had the cover that would make it seem as if this is not something that would even be in the possibility for him.

MARTIN: Which is where I think the Cosby analogy comes in, because Cosby - you know, his public reputation...

BLACKISTONE: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...America's dad, the Jell-O pudding guy, lovable, cuddly - it just is so dissonant with that. That's interesting. Do you - part of what - you know, this - you said this is sort of uncomfortable. This whole conversation is a little - not just our conversation...

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: ...But the whole discussion around Deshaun Watson is uncomfortable. Why is that? I mean, why is that?

BLACKISTONE: Well, it's...

MARTIN: Is it because he's a Black man in a - where - in a way that Black men are continually sort of...

BLACKISTONE: Well...

MARTIN: ...Stereotyped as predatory when other people engage in similar conduct and don't? Or is it just because he's a star? What is it about it that's so uncomfortable?

BLACKISTONE: It's also uncomfortable because criminal charges have not been brought against him and that I believe all but one or two of the 24 or 25 accusers have settled out of court with him. And we know that that doesn't necessarily mean an admission of guilt but just to make a complainant go away. So...

MARTIN: But you're saying the sheer volume of complaints can't be ignored.

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. It can't be ignored. If it were one or two, then you begin to think differently about it. But if it's this many, it's very disturbing. And then the discussions just within the Black community, among Black men who are fans of the game and believe that Deshaun Watson has been set up in some way and point to the fact that the accuser's attorney had a relationship with the owner of the Houston Texans, for whom he played, and that all of this came up at a time when Deshaun Watson and the owner were at odds over his continued employment in Houston anyway.

MARTIN: And I guess that's sort of the ick factor that we talk about. There's the polite conversation, and then there's the not-polite conversation. And the not-polite conversation is that there are people with motives other than the truth who target some of these men. And you have seen that.

BLACKISTONE: I have seen that without question. And I know of women who, over the years, have admitted that they have targeted athletes with money for particular reasons. Absolutely. It goes on.

MARTIN: So forgive me. If you could wave a wand, what would you like to see happen here?

BLACKISTONE: You know, I would have preferred that Deshaun Watson not be allowed to play this season. I think that that is a penalty that would have brought some measure of comfort to those who wanted the most punitive damages brought against Deshaun Watson. And going forward, I think that the league once again has to look at how it deals with this very sometimes delicate situation. I think what they should do is they should look at corporate America, which they are a huge part of, and see how other corporations deal with this. I think they need to speak with women's groups and crisis centers to see how they deal with this. And so I think that one of the things the league needs to also look at - and I think a lot of us do, in whatever walk of life we are in, is look at - is try to figure out how we can fix these problems, how we can help people so that it doesn't happen again rather than just focus on the punishment.

MARTIN: That is Kevin Blackistone. He is a columnist for The Washington Post, he is a panelist on ESPN and he's a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Kevin Blackistone, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing these insights with us.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.