Deshaun Watson has a better chance of leading the Cleveland Browns to their first Super Bowl title than rebuilding his public image.
The disgraced quarterback wouldn’t address his 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct or his league-mandated therapy sessions on Thursday in his first comments since returning to the Browns.
“I have been advised to stay away from that and keep that personal,” Watson said during a 16-minute session with the media in Berea, Ohio.
Watson has been accused by more than two dozen women of sexual harassment and assault during massage therapy sessions. He has settled 23 civil lawsuits brought by the women, while two others, including one filed in October, are pending.
Still, Watson could’ve said he’s grown as a person through counseling, that he has a better understanding of how his behavior affects others and he’s striving to be the best version of himself.
Of course, few people would believe him.
Watson doesn’t have many fans outside of Cleveland and he has a long way to go to win over most folks.
His actions matter more than his words, according to Rita Smith, a senior adviser to the NFL who was hired in 2014 to help shape the league’s policy on domestic abuse and sexual assault.
“How I will know if he’s learned anything is how he behaves in the future,” Smith told The Associated Press. “If he never is accused of this kind of behavior again, then we know that he’s learned something that’s helpful for him. Until then, what he says is kind of irrelevant.”
The 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has maintained his innocence and hasn’t taken much accountability for his behavior that was labeled “egregious” and “predatory” by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I’m continuing to stand on that,” Watson said in August after the NFL and the NFL Players Association reached a settlement on his punishment terms.
He then explained he was apologizing “for people that were triggered” by his actions.
Does he still feel the same way? Did counseling change his perspective?
The NFL made it a priority to mandate professional counseling and therapy as part of Watson’s discipline so he could learn from mistakes, improve his decision-making and do better.
“It was really important for us that, No. 1, that he do some kind of sessions and that the person who is doing the sessions has an understanding of violence and abuse and trauma that we would suggest they look for to help him,” Smith said.
Watson will face intense scrutiny everywhere: His performance on the field will be analyzed, his mannerisms on the sideline, his interactions with teammates in the huddle and his interviews with the media will be dissected.
Starting Sunday when he takes the field against his former teammates in Houston, fans will boo him, taunt and hurl insults.
“I am not worried about the atmosphere,” Watson said. “I have to go in and make sure I execute the game plan.”
The Browns haven’t won an NFL title since 1964. They have as many winless seasons (one) as playoff victories since 1999.
Delivering a championship will be a tough task for Watson, who received a fully guaranteed $235 million contract to do it. It still may be easier than reconstructing his image.
Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP—NFL