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Deshaun Watson, Professional Football’s Culture of Destigmatizing Sexual Abuse, and its Effects on Impressionable Youth

Last updated on November 21, 2021

By Owen G. ’22

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains details regarding sexual violence

 On March 29th, 2021, a licensed massage therapist in the Houston area filed a civil lawsuit against current NFL (National Football League) quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson allegedly exposed his genitals and repeatedly forced them onto the woman’s hand during three separate massage sessions without her consent, resulting in the 22nd and final such sexual assault case against him. In comparison to Watson’s 22nd civil lawsuit, some other plaintiff’s allegations of sexual violence that he committed were even worse, yet he continues to be listed on the active roster for the NFL’s Houston Texans. Although the FBI and Houston Police Department are currently investigating the case, the NFL has currently declined to put Watson on an exempt list, indefinitely suspend him, or take any disciplinary action whatsoever as his investigation continues. Regardless of whether he touches the field this season, Watson is guaranteed his entire $15,940,000 season salary from his $156,000,000, 4-year contract that he inked in 2020. Watson having requested a trade prior to the season muddles the outlook of his situation even more, given that he still commands record-breaking trade value; albeit with guaranteed protection attached to the assets that a team would give away considering the uncertainty of Watson’s legal situation. In recent months, media attention has been centered more on Watson’s potential trade destinations, and less on the uncomfortable reality that Watson could be the subject of serious financial compensation and/or extensive imprisonment depending on the outcomes of the criminal and civil cases against him.  

These, unfortunately, are not the only sexual assault cases that the NFL has seen in recent memory. Current Jacksonville Jaguar Adam Gotsis turned himself in and posted bail after rape charges from his time in college resurfaced. Barkevious Mingo, a Super Bowl champion and NFL veteran of 9 years, was released after he allegedly groomed a young boy and sexually abused him in his hotel room in 2019. Neither of these charges resulted in disciplinary action. The league’s refusal to reprimand these actions is a testament to the money hungry nature of corporate America. Potential revenue trumps all; even when the ‘all’ includes punishing behavior that violates basic human rights. 

This pattern of passive stance on allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct was even mentioned in the legal statements of multiple plaintiffs. The direct legal statement by the aforementioned 22nd plaintiff states, “The NFL is notorious for a culture that fosters sexual harassment and sexual assault. Despite its lip service and a strong ad campaign to the contrary, many of its players have been accused of committing heinous sexual crimes against women.” This culture of ignorance towards claims of sexual abuse clearly remains pervasive, but the NFL and popular media refuses to acknowledge the harmful nature of this form of thought.   

What message is this complacency sending the millions of youths, including countless members of our Northwest school community, who have consumed this story and witnessed inept response from the NFL? 

In a survey addressed to Northwest’s entire upper school body, students were asked to select their level of agreement on two statements related to Deshaun Watson’s allegations and the subsequent response, or lack thereof, from the NFL. The first statement: the NFL should have a harsher approach towards Deshaun Watson and his sexual assault cases, was agreed upon nearly unanimously by the student body. 98.4% of participating students selected levels of personal agreement or strong personal agreement towards this statement. Although this overwhelming consensus was expected, the student population’s general awareness of the inappropriate nature of the NFL’s response is a welcome sign that demonstrates adequate understanding of the severity of sexual violence. The second statement: organizations like the NFL refusing to reprimand their high-profile employees in any shape or form desensitizes you to sexual abuse, initiated a much more problematic response. 80.9% of participating students stated some level of agreement with said statement, with the vast majority of that subset admitting a strong level of agreement. In the survey, the term ‘desensitized’ refers to feelings of indifference or apathy brought on by, for instance, repeated exposure or jokes around an uncomfortable topic.  

In an admission of guilt, I was also absolutely desensitized to sexual abuse in the wake of the Deshaun Watson situation. I was appalled that someone I admired and thought so highly of could be such a villain behind closed doors. The lack of accountability Watson was held to by the media, fans, and most importantly, his employer was equally disturbing to me. Although these news outlets and social media platforms were integral to the spread of desensitizing the public in the weeks ensuing Watson’s allegations, the NFL had the opportunity to change common narratives and public thought around the NFL community being predicated on toxic masculinity. A ‘poster boy’ player committing heinous acts was, in a twisted way, a perfect opportunity to address concerns about their pattern of fostering rape culture. Demonstration of compliance with modernized values of accountability regarding sexual abuse and harassment would’ve been embraced with open arms. In this regard, the NFL abandoned their moral compass in favor of continuing to profit off Watson’s likeness and marketability. The NFL’s decision to decline action is extremely impactful for student populations like Northwest, given the inherent susceptibility of youth. Our generation’s general lack of knowledge on themes of sexual assault and misconduct allows for the NFL’s response to overwhelm our thinking of the importance of sexual violence. 

The reality is that America’s youth has recently been one of the NFL’s most heavily targeted audiences. The NFL has pursued an increase in viewership from their youth audience through targeted ad campaigns and a lucrative deal with Nickelodeon that saw a 2020 playoff game and animated NFL-themed TV series air on the network. A desire to attract a younger audience is apparent, but they continue to remain ignorant towards the impact that the disturbing side of the NFL has on the impressionable youth of America. The NFL’s response to Deshaun Watson’s allegations demonstrates unpreparedness to handle the influx of youth viewership in an age of accountability. 

To compensate for the NFL’s failure in setting an example for our youth, conversations around sexual violence need to take place. By sidelining conversations around sexual violence and impacts of neglect around allegations concerning crimes of sexual nature, we are actively allowing the outdated culture that the NFL has fostered to prevail. Please do your part to ensure that our community isn’t ignorant and acknowledges the severity of sexual violence.



 At the time of publication, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins have reportedly ramped up their aggressive pursuit of Watson in hopes of landing the star signal-caller ahead of the November 2nd trade deadline. 

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