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For $230 Million, the Browns Get Deshaun Watson, and Questions

Cleveland Browns, he’s your problem now.

You courted Deshaun Watson, took him in and handed him the fattest guaranteed contract in N.F.L. history, despite his tarnished reputation and the many women who have accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

Now, for all of his sublime talents at quarterback, you must also deal with the storm cloud he creates.

It will keep looming, foreboding and unavoidable, despite a grand jury decision on March 11 to forgo bringing criminal charges against him.

Watson’s legal battles continue. Twenty-two civil suits alleging abuse remain.

Even if Watson, 26, avoids a civil trial and settles those cases by paying his accusers, cutting a deal so they’ll keep quiet — common practice when wealthy, powerful men face a cavalcade of horrible accusations — few will forget.

This is a complex situation, filled with questions that we’ve grown all too accustomed to in sports. And like so many things in modern life, it will divide.

Many fans will stick firmly behind Watson. They will point to the grand jury decision and say the quarterback was wronged by his accusers. They will wholeheartedly believe Watson’s claims of innocence, just as they believe the explanation of his lawyer, who has acknowledged that, yes, there were consensual encounters between Watson and some of the 22 women who filed suits against him, but whatever happened was “mutually desired.”

Those fans, trapped, perhaps, by the allure of stardom in a world where athletic icons are too often viewed as nearly infallible gods, will say it is time to move on.

But plenty more will remember and are likely never to forgive. Instead, they will look at the whole picture: the cascade of claims from accusers who came forward with stories of Watson exposing himself, or touching the women with his genitals, or ejaculating on them. Three of the criminal complaints alleged either sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

That’s a pattern. It is disturbing, to say the least.

Contempt will understandably stick to the Cleveland Browns for good, no matter how “humble, sincere and candid” the team owners found him in interviews, and no matter how well the team performs on the field.

And the N.F.L., which once again has shown that it is ready to put profit and winning above all else, will face yet another reckoning.

It’s well known that claims of sexual abuse are difficult to prove in the criminal courts, particularly when there is little to no physical evidence and the alleged acts took place in private. But once Watson’s criminal case ended, plenty of N.F.L. teams were ready to move on as if his accusers hadn’t spoken with troubling consistency about what happened to them.

With Watson’s longtime team, the Houston Texans, looking to trade away its star quarterback the moment the criminal case concluded, the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints all jumped into the recruiting mix with Cleveland.

These teams were eager to discuss trading their integrity for a chance to build a winner with Watson. They couldn’t help themselves, couldn’t wait to see what would become of the civil cases. They disregarded victims and their accounts.

Yes, Cleveland got him. But if you are a fan, an employee or an owner of a team that went after Watson, well, remember the old saying: Sometimes the best prayers are those that go unanswered. That now applies to you.

In Cleveland, it will be a different story. Watson initially spurned the Browns, but the team beckoned with a deal so lavish it seemed intended to coat him in a patina of respectability: five years, $230 million, every dollar guaranteed.

Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, could have looked at all of the publicly known allegations and decided enough was enough. He could have sent a strong message by putting Watson on leave for violating the N.F.L.’s conduct policy — no matter what happens in the legal fight.

Goodell hasn’t done that.

Instead, from N.F.L. headquarters, we hear that the league is still conducting its own investigation — molasses slow when the signal sent by decisive action is warranted.

How can we be surprised by anything from a league that hardly covers itself in glory when it comes to standing up for the rights of women?

The N.F.L. allowed Antonio Brown to play for Tampa Bay even as he faced accusations of sexual harassment and a lawsuit accusing him of rape. The N.F.L. stands idle even as one of its foundational teams, the Washington Commanders, is saddled with accounts of harassment from over a dozen women that even involve the team owner Daniel Snyder. There are plenty of similar stories. By now they are part of the N.F.L. fabric.

As I reflected upon the Watson story over the last few days, I couldn’t help but think of another side. What about women who are simply trying to survive harassment and abuse? How did news of Watson’s signing affect women at a place like the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center?

“There was outrage, confusion, pain and women here wanting to understand how in the world this could even happen,” said Donisha Greene, the clinic’s director of community engagement, who spoke to me on a video call.

“It definitely triggered a lot of awful emotions,” she said. I could hear the weariness in her voice. “A lot.”

Greene pointed me to startling statistics showing the volume of sexual assault in America and how hard it is for women to receive justice in the court system. Of every 1,000 cases of sexual assault, the vast majority will go unreported. Of the 50 that lead to arrest, only 25 perpetrators will be incarcerated.

When it comes to sexual abuse, we live in a world where men often get second chances and women are left with unfathomable pain that society fails to acknowledge or see.

“Sadly,” Greene said, “stories like this are not surprising to us.”

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