A wild but predictable thing happened last weekend: after the Buffalo Bills cut rookie punter Matt Araiza, who might be in steep legal trouble over allegations of a gang rape he allegedly participated in with his college teammates, fans of Deshaun Watson nutted up. Total silence. Not a peep.
Not that I expected Watson fans, who these days are generally synonymous with Cleveland Browns fans, to take to the streets over another team’s punter. It’s just that for months while the NFL litigated the length of Watson’s suspension over his alleged sexual harassment and assault of 24 massage therapists in Texas, his fans seemed to be standing in solidarity with him on the same principles that one would assume would have made them also empathetic to Araiza’s current situation.
Across social media, the excuse-making of Watson’s defenders seemed like a tell that many of them lacked a basic understanding of how employment works, or more specifically, how discipline works when somebody else signs your check every week. How else to explain the wave of folks who have argued that the NFL had no business suspending Watson just because he had faced a criminal investigation and two dozen lawsuits over accusations he did something terrible?
Forget for a moment that a man allegedly exposing his penis, masturbating and ejaculating during what were supposed to be routine massage therapy sessions is heinous behavior. The fact is that no nine-to-fiver would ever stand a chance in hell of reporting to work once they’ve been sued for such a thing—especially not after their current workplace found out that their former employer–in Watson’s case the Houston Texans–had been forced to settle lawsuits with his accusers, too. No employer wants those kind of problems and plenty of folks get fired for less. But for many of Watson’s fans, the NFL is unfairly persecuting him over unproven allegations.
Watson, his legal team and the NFL Players Association finally negotiated an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine from the NFL in early August. That’s getting off light considering the league wanted him gone at least a year and the Browns structured his record $230 million contract to blunt the impact of any missed time in his first season in Cleveland. I was once suspended from a gig for writing a freelance article without permission; I lost a week’s pay. (Luckily the freelance check was worth more than I would’ve made that week, and I hated the job, which was filled with some of the most evil people I’ve ever encountered).
Point being, Watson’s suspension is a much fairer shake than any of his fans would get for far lesser offenses, which seems remarkably lost on many of them. That brings us back to Araiza, who is being sued by an unidentified 18-year-old woman who alleges he and two former San Diego State University teammates raped her last October, while she was a minor. Araiza has yet to have a day in court and as of now hasn’t been charged with a crime, but his job and likely his hopes of ever playing in the NFL are gone. Watson sympathizers have been quiet as a church mouse snacking on a piece of holy cheese about Araiza’s fate.
“This is bigger than football,” said Bills General Manager Brandon Beane in a press conference last Saturday after the team cut Araiza. He’s exactly right: sexual assault is bigger than football, even when it’s only an allegation yet to be proven in court or charged by a prosecutor. The Bills weren’t wrong for cutting him under the circumstances, but that decision was made a lot easier by the fact that Araiza was a rookie punter hoping to make a roster as opposed to the newly-signed, highest-paid quarterback in NFL history. What the Bills and, by extension, the NFL have said is that Araiza’s position and level of talent made him more easily expendable than Watson, whose arm strength and potential to take the bad-news Browns to Super Bowl glory are what kept him in the league and not on the unemployment line. Apparently his talent also makes fans who would also be unemployed if they were in his shoes totally OK with that double standard.