Watson, the Browns and Moving On
So I have an idea about what this Cleveland Browns Diary will become — we’ll get to that in a moment — but first we should probably tie a bow on my 50 or so years as a fans of the Cleveland Browns.
“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I’m continuing to stand on that.”
These were the enduring words of Cleveland’s new superstar quarterback, Deshaun Watson, after the NFL finalized its punishment on Thursday — an 11-game suspension, a $5 million fine, various requirements for counseling and rehabilitation after credibly being accused by at least 24 different massage therapists of sexual assault and/or misconduct (credibly enough that he settled civil cases with 23 of them).
He never assaulted anyone. He never even disrespected anyone. He’s an innocent man.
The NFL’s 215-page investigative shows that Watson would: (1) reach out via Instagram to dozens of massage therapists, even if they were inexperienced or unlicensed; (2) tell them he wanted special care taken with his “focus points” (including his groin); (3) refuse to be covered by a sheet but instead preferred a towel (often bringing his own — described by at least one of the therapists as a “Gatorade towel”). None of this is even in dispute.
But he never assaulted anyone. He never even disrespected anyone.
“Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said.
He has, huh?
“We’ve seen him recognize some things that he wished he had done differently and some positions he wished he had not put himself into,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslem told Cleveland.com — and that’s a word salad for the ages, isn’t it? Let’s parse.
“We’ve seen him recognize some things that he wished he had done differently.”
What does recognize mean here? Acknowledge? Identify? Endorse? Validate?
What is a wish?
And if that wish came true, what would it have looked like? A bigger towel?
But that part of the statement is actually the better part.
“And some positions he wished he had not put himself into.”
Seriously — what does that even mean? Positions? He repeatedly Instagrammed female massage therapists no matter their experience level, identified himself as one of the premier athletes in the United States, asked them to work on his groin area separated by only a small towel and only then come the allegeds — what position does he wish he had not put himself into exactly?
But … well, all of this is sadly predictable. The Browns are all in on Watson because they think he’s good enough to finally take this team to the Super Bowl. Many fans will cheer Watson now and even louder when he returns because they think he’s good enough to finally take this team to the Super Bowl. And as time goes on, you can be sure, people will rave about how he’s changed, how he’s grown up, heck before it’s all said and done they might even get Watson to offer an authentic apology to the women he assaulted AND disrespected, though as Browns owner Dee Haslem says, you have to give him time.
“Deshaun has made progress from the time he came here to now,” she said. “But it is not going to happen overnight.”
No. Not overnight.
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My first vivid Cleveland Browns memory is watching Greg Pruitt run. It was 1973, when I was 6 years old. Pruitt was a rookie, and my memory is of the first touchdown he ever scored — a 7-yard run against the San Diego Chargers (in what ended up being a dispiriting 16-16 tie — foreshadowing!).
Pruitt — who was always referred to in NFL Films as “the little guy” — went left, and a Chargers defensive lineman grabbed him underneath his helmet and spun him entirely around. Pruitt then stopped for an instant to get his bearings, juked one defender to the ground, then began running the other way. There were no defenders and he coasted into the end zone.
I had my first sports hero.
Over the next 10 or so years, the Cleveland Browns were the most important thing in my life. More important than school. More important than friends. More important than trying to figure out a life path. I recall missing only two Cleveland Browns games in my entire childhood — and I remember them both vividly.
The first was Sept. 16, 1979. For some bizarre reason, our school had scheduled a mandatory sex-education class that day at 1 p.m., exactly the Browns and Colts kickoff time. The game was not a sellout and therefore not on television in Cleveland; if it had been on TV, I feel certain that I would have skipped the class even under the threat of suspension. But as it was only on the radio, I went and learned nothing and made it back out to the car in time for Don Cockroft’s game-winning field goal.
The second was Oct. 19, 1980 — Browns vs. Packers. That day, there was a sale on typewriters at Circuit City, and my mother said she would get me one but only if I went with her to the store. This meant missing the game. I did it (again, the game was not a sellout so it was only on radio) and basically spent almost every minute in the store asking people if they knew the score.
The Browns won that one with a spectacular Brian Sipe to Dave Logan pass in the final moments.
I have tried but have never found the words for how obsessed I was with the Browns; I thought about them constantly. In high school, regrettably, I was an indifferent student, and much of that is because I spent so much class time writing and rewriting Cleveland Browns preview articles.
After I became a sportswriter, that obsession cooled. In my time in Cincinnati, I was much more focused on the Bengals, and after the Browns moved to Baltimore, I swore off them entirely. The Kansas City Chiefs were my, er, focus point. It took a long time after the new Browns came to Cleveland for me to feel any sort of fondness for them.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
A few years ago — some of you will remember this — I decided to reconnect with the Browns in an effort to reconnect with my childhood passion. I missed caring that much about a team.
And a funny thing happened: Our younger daughter, Katie, decided to become a Browns fan too. She was not from Cleveland, had spent only a few days there in her life, but she cheered for the Browns with the zeal of the converted. When the Browns lost — as they did every single game in 2017 — she continued to believe. She loved Nick Chubb. She loved Baker Mayfield. She loved Myles Garrett. On the day they traded for Odell Beckham Jr., she was so excited that she sent me a flood of texts with essentially the same message: “WE ARE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL!”
And, through her enthusiasm and fervor, I really did find my own.
In the end — I think this is irony, though it might just be Alanis — this rediscovery of my old Browns fanhood is exactly why I’m leaving the Browns now. If I only half-heartedly cared about them (as it was for many years) I don’t think it would even be worth the effort to change teams. Sure, I’d think the Browns were cynical and shameless and not only willing but eager to trade in any and all principles for victory.
But let’s not kid anybody: They’re not the only ones. If things had worked out differently, and the Browns had lost the Watson auction, it would just be a different team’s owner talking about how much progress Watson has made as a man on the same day that he denied even disrespecting anyone, and it would be another fan base that would be pointing out that he was not indicted and he’s innocent until proven guilty and so on.*
*You can throw innocent until proven guilty out, by the way, because the NFL DID prove his guilt to the satisfaction of former federal judge Sue L. Robinson, who put together a scathing decision that, among other things, called Watson’s actions “predatory.” It’s also telling that he settled with 23 women, which may not be an admission of guilt but sure ain’t a promising sign of innocence. It’s also telling that despite Watson’s claims of innocence, neither he nor the NFLPA nor the Browns are fighting his 11-game ban or $5 million fine. Nobody except Watson seems to think he’s innocent. As for the non-indictments — there’s a saying that a skilled prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Maybe so. But try to indict that ham sandwich in Texas if it happens to also be a star athlete with highly paid representation.
Point is: The Browns are not singularly dishonorable; they’re just the one team of 31 willing to dish out the most money.
Still, I just can’t find the passion inside to root for that team. It has drained out of me. And the same is true for Katie. All my life, I’ve only wanted the Cleveland Browns to win. I don’t care anymore. I don’t want them to lose, because I know the Browns winning would make people in Cleveland happy. But I don’t care.
And caring was the whole point.
And so, my search for an NFL team to care about goes on. And this is how it will work. Every week, until I find what I’m looking for, I’m going to do a diary post for a different team. Katie and I are going to basically try some teams on for size — the Bills, the Lions, the Panthers, the Titans, maybe the Dolphins, the Chiefs, of course, some others. And I’m going to see how it feels. I’m going to listen to some people who will try to convince me to become a fan of their team.
I don’t know if it will work. But it should be fun. That is supposed to be the point. Greg Pruitt was fun. Brian Sipe was fun. Ozzie Newsome was fun. I miss the fun. Because this Browns offseason has been the opposite of fun.