It was only a matter of time before somebody made the Deshaun Watson-Minnesota Vikings connection.
On Wednesday, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler tossed the Vikings’ name into the pot of teams that might be interested in Watson’s services. Fowler’s tease on Twitter made it seem as if he was reporting something percolating between the Vikings and Watson but inside the article, there was merely a fling of the Vikings’ name at the wall as a team with “intriguing young pieces.” Because it’s the year 2022, the difference between actual reporting and speculation does not matter. Once the names are tied together, the firestorm of debates comes along with it.
Watson's camp meanwhile refuted the report on Thursday.
Maybe there’s another thinkpiece to be written about the responsibility “insiders” have to make clear when something is conjecture and when it’s actual reporting. Maybe that wouldn’t get as many favorites on social media. But I digress.
The thing about the Watson arguments that will now come tumbling down on Vikings fans like a rockslide is that they always lead back to one place: How willing are you to ignore what’s going on off the field?
In Fowler’s article, the accusations against Watson get a single sentence. The equivalent of the famous Seinfeld “yada, yada.” But in order to get the full breadth of the situation, we need to talk about the significance of the allegations. There are 22 civil lawsuits against the Houston Texans quarterback accusing him of sexual assault, coercion and intimidation. Twenty. Two. This is not a he said/she said. This is he said/she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said she said.
Watson allegedly told one of the plaintiffs: "I know you have a career and a reputation, and I know you would hate for someone to mess with yours, just like I don't want anyone messing with mine."
We have never seen an athlete implicated in a sexual assault case of this magnitude. This isn’t a small claims court civil case. This is a player being accused of predatory behavior on a large scale.
The Vikings haven’t had a true franchise quarterback since Fran Tarkenton and they haven’t reached a Super Bowl since he was under center. That matters to this discussion. While fans are often OK with looking the other way when it comes to concerns about a player’s off-field behavior — remember, Ray Rice got cheers at training camp before he was suspended — a fan base that has been tortured for decades is particularly willing to bend the shape of its standards if it means giving them a better chance at a championship.
How critical should we be of those fans who want Watson? There’s a case to be made that pro sports are hardly a bastion of morality. The league is constantly asking you to hold your nose while trying to enjoy football. Broadcasts celebrated Ben Roethlisberger this year without a whisper of his past. The NFL blackballed a player and then wrote “End Racism” in the end zones. Roger Goodell gave non answers during Super Bowl week on the lack of diverse hiring among coaches. Stadiums get paid for by tax payers while owners make draft picks from yachts. Players do unfathomable things to their bodies because they know they’ll be let go if they don’t play through the pain. You get the point.
It’s easy to say: Why would we draw a line in the sand at one player who is being accused of something horrific in a civil suit? Other teams have benefitted from not caring. Big Ben kept winning. Cleveland picked up Kareem Hunt after he was caught on video kicking a woman and he ran for over 1,400 yards and scored 13 touchdowns for the Browns since then. Ray Lewis pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case and the team kept him at middle linebacker.
In the past, the argument has been made that the league should do nothing about player behavior and that fans shouldn’t carry that weight on their shoulders. This isn’t a church, it’s football. Society has ways of dealing with these things called a legal system. And Watson’s issue isn’t — as of yet — a criminal case.
But “who cares, let the legal system deal with it” and “other people are doing it” feel like pretty shallow and empty approaches to a player accused of heinous actions. Do you look at details of the lawsuit, throw up your hands and then head over to the NFL Shop website to buy a purple Watson jersey?
If you spend your days arguing in favor of Watson coming to Minnesota, do you shrug your shoulders at the possibility of the similar accusations coming to light in your community?
On the team’s side, what if a bevy of draft picks is sent to Houston and then Watson ends up being suspended or gets accused again? To some, a ring is a ring, no matter how you get there. But there are pitfalls to that line of thinking, including the risk that Watson’s problems don’t just clear up like a rash. Heck, the FBI is involved here.
When it comes to athletes’ personal troubles, there has never been a one-size-fits-all answer to how we should feel about them. There isn’t a chart that shows which issues meet the threshold of being too problematic to root for. In Minnesota, you still see Adrian Peterson jerseys. There are many folks who will never don the No. 28 again because the superstar running back abused his child.
You can see why many folks wouldn’t want to tie their moral compass to athletes but how can we tell people that prefer their players to not have 22 sexual assault lawsuits against them that they have it all wrong? Are we really supposed to encourage the team to acquire Watson with everything that comes along with him?
Someone will trade for him. They will likely benefit greatly from doing so. But the message it sends to women fans will be dark and irreparable. You can say we shouldn’t take our messages from sports teams but that seems impossible with the size of the NFL stage. If teams didn’t think the things they did were meaningful, why would they go to such great lengths to highlight community efforts? Why would the Vikings give $5 million to social justice causes? Or does that only apply to things that provide positive press?
Nobody can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Vikings would be selling their soul to chase Deshaun Watson. We can say that Watson’s situation is far more complicated than the team chasing a championship. Even if you — and they — believe that his personal problems are his alone and have nothing to do with his performance as a football player, it’s impossible to ignore how acquiring Watson would look and feel and the possibilities of things going in a very ugly direction if he’s acquired.