“Before they were too harsh, and now in a way, they were not harsh enough, but this was a much better process and didn’t put the integrity of the commissioner and the league in question,” said Bob Boland, who leads the sports law program at Seton Hall University. “The fact that the result is unsatisfying is unfortunate.”
While the new process appears to have functioned as intended, leaving Goodell out of the review of facts and the initial meting of a penalty, the league’s policies still seem like a work in progress. LeRoy pointed to the opening line of Robinson’s conclusion: “The N.F.L. may be a ‘forward-facing’ organization, but it is not necessarily a forward-looking one,” indicating that the N.F.L. is under a lot of scrutiny, but its approach to discipline has been mostly reactive.
After being criticized for its handling of the case involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who in 2014 was initially suspended for two games after he punched his fiancée in a hotel elevator, the N.F.L. rewrote its personal conduct policy to set a baseline of a six-game unpaid suspension for first offenders of specific violations: Criminal assault or battery, all forms of domestic violence and sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent.
In Robinson’s report, she concluded that Watson’s behavior toward the massage therapists was not violent under the N.F.L.’s definition of the term. As a result, she said, she was limited in the discipline she could hand out. Robinson wrote that while it may be “entirely appropriate” to more severely discipline players for what the N.F.L. defined as nonviolent sexual conduct, she did not believe it was fair to do so given the league’s current standards.
Juan Carlos Areán, a program director for the nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence, said that he did not believe a six-game suspension, without any requirement for counseling or intervention, was adequate to either deter or correct the behaviors of which Watson is accused. Because violence against women can take many forms, Areán said that policies should be written to give latitude to the person issuing discipline based on the specifics of each case.
“We know that you don’t have to use physical force, and it’s hard to prove use of physical force, when a sexual assault happens,” he said. “We also know that other kinds of assaults, emotional abuse and those kinds of things, can have a very adverse impact in victims. These are very complex issues, and you cannot just clearly quantify, ‘well, this is much worse than this.’”