When I heard on Monday that the initial suspension for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson would only be six games, a third of a regular season, I was infuriated.
There are lots of reasons to be mad. It was a reminder of Watson’s alleged behavior: sexually harassing or assaulting two dozen massage therapists. It was a reminder of the NFL’s historic incompetence in holding players accountable. And it was a reminder of how helpless I feel about it (I’ve boycotted the NFL before, and it’s amazing how little that accomplishes).
While I was stewing in my anger at the league, my dad reminded me that the church is no stranger to storylines about sexual abuse, corruption, and violence. The NFL is a stark example of this, but so are Hillsong’s cover up for Brian Houston, Christian comedian John Crist’s easy return to fame, and the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention — all of which show patterns of placing organization and hierarchy before true accountability and protection of the abused.
Matthew 7:3-5 instructs Christians to reject hypocrisy — to take care of our own sins before turning to the sins of another. While we (righteously) condemn and rebuke the NFL for weak and inefficient accountability, we need to recognize that Christian spaces and communities have been equally prone to placing protection of their own brand, money, and power before the protection of victims.
This is the question Christians must answer: Is our sense of justice is only offended when we see unfairness and inequality in others or are we willing to turn our critical lens toward ourselves? Here are three ways Watson’s suspension and surrounding circumstances give us an opportunity to better pursue justice in our churches, communities, and homes.
The NFL is the arbiter of its own sins, and it considers threatening the flow of cash into the hands of the owner — not violating the rights of others — to be the worst transgression. This becomes especially clear when you compare Watson’s suspension to other punishments the league has doled out: There’s Terrelle Pryor, suspended five games for accepting gifts and money while he was in college; Calvin Ridley, suspended at least a full season (17 games) for betting on his own team to win; DeAndre Hopkins, suspended six games for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy; and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who the league declined to suspend for soliciting prostitution.
In the eyes of the NFL, betting on a game is nearly three times as egregious as sexual assault. Why? Because fans are more likely to turn off a game they think isn’t being played fairly than a game played by a serial predator. While Watson may end up suspended for longer (the NFL is appealing the initial suspension), it is obvious that the NFL is reacting to public outcry, not pursuing justice.
It’s painfully apparent that the league is probably right in its calculations: Fans will continue to watch Watson; in fact, Steve Wyche reported that fans cheered for Watson as he attended practice the day of his suspension. And even for fans who don’t cheer, watching their team play may mean watching Watson, and any attention to the NFL benefits all 32 teams, whether they like it or not.
Christians aren’t immune to this dilemma either. Churches may abhor the behavior of Hillsong founder Brian Houston, but Hillsong’s music still dominates many of their Sunday worship services. Christians may decry war, but their taxes still fund the largest imperial force in the world.
The myth of “non-violent sexual assault”
Watson’s conduct, according to Robinson, did not meet the NFL’s standard of “sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent.” Instead, Robinson wrote that Watson’s behavior falls under conduct she defined as “non-violent sexual assault,” comparing Watson’s behavior to the NFL’s three-game suspension of Jameis Winston in 2018.
We need to eliminate the idea of nonviolent sexual assault from every facet of our society. Ashley Kline, the director of services at the Hope & Healing Survivor Resource Center in Akron, Ohio, told Yahoo Sports that drawing such a distinction blames victims, rather than perpetrators, for harm.
“Oftentimes people think of violent crimes as only being an actual rape,” Kline told Yahoo Sports, “but we have this whole continuum of other coercive behaviors on that continuum of sexual violence that can be just as impactful and harmful to people.”
In Christian history, we see the false dichotomy between sexual assault and violence most prominently in the life of John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite ethicist and proponent of nonviolence who sexually abused and violated numerous women over his life. Yoder believed he could passionately pursue nonviolence in national and international ethics, while abusing and harming women in his life.
In response, women theologians and ethicists developed Christian antiviolence, which authors Myles Werntz and David Cramer describe as “active resistance to sexual and gender-based forms of violence, whether interpersonal or societal,” in their book A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence.
FaithTrust Institute, founded by Christian ethicist Rev. Marie M. Fortune, identifies that sexual violence “is about violence that misuses sex and sexuality to exert power over others.”
Werntz and Cramer cite Fortune who identifies that violence is “a profound violation of another person which is injurious and destructive.” This framework correctly identifies actions like Watson and Yoder’s as violent by putting the injury to victims first, not the level of aggression of perpetrators.
The search for repentance
In response to the suspension announcement on Monday, Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam wrote that Deshaun Watson was remorseful. For many, this stood in stark contrast to Watson’s own words in March: “I don't have any regrets,” Watson said in a press conference. “I never did anything that these people are alleging.”
So, what gives? Well, the Haslams carefully said that Watson is “remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many.” This brought back memories of John Crist’s apology when Charisma News reported that Crist had sexually harassed multiple women.
“I am sorry for the hurt and pain I have caused these women and will continue to seek their forgiveness,” Crist said. But he also maintained that he was “not guilty of everything [he was] accused of,” offering only vaguely that he had “treated relationships with women far too casually, in some cases even recklessly … [and] sinned against God, against women and the people who I love the most.”
In both cases, these men offer vague statements of remorse or regret for the pain and heartache caused, without an honest and specific repentance of their actions. Indeed, Robinson notes Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” in her decision.
The question, for all of us, is what do abusers gain by offering vague apologies? What are they trying to achieve? The men and their supporters are attempting to weaponize a Christian culture of unending forgiveness. While forgiveness is indeed a virtue, it should never come at the expense of those harmed. Crist and Watson (and their colleagues) refuse to properly repent, apologize, or seek to repair the harm they are accused of. Instead, they ask their victims — and us — to move on.
It's important to say that Watson and Crist, even if truly repentant, may not deserve to be restored to their positions of celebrity and fame. As theologian Kyle James Howard notes, even repentance doesn’t necessitate the restoring of old roles, particularly for men like Watson and Crist, who used their power and fame to harm others.
Howard writes: “If a public person [with] platform & influence betrays [that] platform & uses it to hurt others, repentance doesn’t entitle them to platform reinstallation.”
There is no doubt that the NFL is rife with problems. It would be hard to turn on a game and not find a player or coach accused of committing or supporting acts of violence, racism, homophobia, and so on. The league itself has perpetuated racism, covered up violence, and allowed rampant abuse to go unchecked. But, in many cases, the NFL is what we allow it to be, as are our churches.