Questions remain after Deshaun Watson's Browns debut vs. Texans

ByJake Trotter ESPN logo
Monday, December 5, 2022

HOUSTON -- At 10:08 a.m. Houston time, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson walked onto the NRG Stadium field to warm up for his first regular-season game in exactly 700 days.

Within minutes, the gates opened and a smattering of Watson's No. 4 jerseys, in Cleveland and Houston colors, dotted the stands around him. One of those blue No. 4 Texans jerseys, however, had been repurposed.

Stewart Mathieson, a Houston fan from Scotland who tries to attend a game every couple of years, bought his jersey when Watson was still throwing touchdowns for the Texans. He admitted he was upset when Watson demanded a trade from Houston. But when the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions against Watson started surfacing, Mathieson says he became outraged.

"I didn't know if he was guilty," Mathieson said. "But then 24... women come forward, there's something there."

Along with his nephew, Mathieson bought pregame sideline passes for Sunday's game. He turned his Watson jersey into a statement, with the message "JUSTICE 4 WOMEN" on the back and "BROWNS SHAME" stitched below the No. 4 on the front.

"In America, money can buy you justice. ... You can buy the best attorneys," Mathieson said, shortly after walking past Watson's entourage -- which included Watson's agent, David Mulugheta, and marketing manager, Bryan Burney -- hanging near the Browns tunnel. "Some of my Browns friends [in Scotland] have given up supporting the team because of Watson. ... Am I going to boo him? Yeah, I'm going to boo him."

After serving an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, Watson returned to the field against his former team.

Watson was suspended after being accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct during massage sessions; some of those women attended the game.

Behind a pair of defensive touchdowns and a punt return score, the Browns defeated the NFL's worst team, 27-14. But the spectacle of Watson's return overshadowed all, including the final score.

Although NRG Stadium was half-empty, Watson was loudly booed before every Browns snap.

But until the game kicked off, it seemed as if Mathieson might be booing alone, as Watson supporters clamored for his autograph around the lower seating rim. During his pregame warmup, Watson walked over to the stands behind the end zone, where a gaggle of Browns and Texans fans shouted for him to sign their jerseys and hats and even asked to take selfies with him.

Sarah Flores, who said she became a Texans season-ticket holder because of Watson, was among them. After getting her red Texans No. 4 jersey signed by Watson, she said she believed he was "100%" innocent of the allegations against him.

"Somebody as successful as he is would never go and jeopardize his career like that," Flores said.

Other Browns fans walking into the stadium seemed to minimize the allegations with signs and T-shirts.

One man wore an orange shirt with "FREE WATSON" on the front and "ALL HE WANTED WAS A HAPPY ENDING" on the back. He led a "Here we go Brownies" chant alongside a pair of women donning brown-colored Watson jerseys as they entered the stadium.

Then the game began. The booing started, and it didn't stop.

ON MARCH 18, the Browns traded for Watson, sending the Texans three first-round draft picks in return. Cleveland then gave Watson a $230 million fully guaranteed deal, the richest contract in NFL history.

Donisha Greene, the director of community engagement for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said her organization's phones immediately began ringing.

"It was really heartbreaking at times because you got your lifelong fans writing their notes and saying, 'I've been a Browns fan for 29 years, and this is the first season that I won't be participating in,' so they'd donate the cost of a season ticket," said Greene, who noted that the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center has raised more than $120,000 since March from people who said they were donating because of Watson. "It was a pretty powerful response, for sure."

Greene also said during the weekend after the Watson trade, the average number of calls they received from survivors tripled.

"Sometimes they were just folks saying that, 'Hey, I've never reported my sexual assault, but I am triggered by this story, and I just wanted to call in and talk about it. I'm very disturbed. I'm very angry,'" Greene said. "Some survivors can hear this story and be triggered, and be angry, and it makes them relive their trauma. For other folks, it may make them feel empowered and want to take control of their healing in a way that they may have not been able to do before. That's probably why you [saw] the number of survivors going to the game. That's them standing up for themselves and taking control over what they can control, essentially."

Around 10 of the women who filed civil suits against Watson attended Sunday's game along with their lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who said some of his clients "thought it important to make clear that they are still here and that they matter."

Brenda Tracy has followed the Watson case closely. Tracy was raped by four men, including three Oregon State football players, in 1998. She now travels the country sharing her story in hopes of persuading coaches, athletes and administrators to take sexual assault seriously by adopting strict policies on sexual violence and prevention.

She called Watson's return to the field "frustrating" and the antics of fans "defeating at times."

"People have minimized the impact on these survivors in a really detrimental way," said Tracy, who has spoken to more than 50,000 athletes, including one NFL team -- the Baltimore Ravens. "Just making a mockery of the trauma and the pain that these survivors have gone through. ... That's all terrible and disgusting, and all it does is just further the minimization of the harm that he did to other human beings."

Watson has denied any wrongdoing and, this past week, refused to answer any non-football questions.

When Watson was asked Thursday about fans who don't think he should be the face of the franchise, a Cleveland radio personality who normally doesn't attend Browns interview sessions mumbled under his breath, "football questions only, dumbass."

Watson, who wasn't charged criminally, said in August that he wanted to tell his side of the story, but then said nobody's been interested in hearing it. On Thursday, he was then asked if he would tell his side in time.

"At this time, I can't address any of that stuff," he said. "Who knows what the future holds, but right now, I am so locked in on just being the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns."

Sunday, he was pressed again on whether he had any remorse for the conduct that got him suspended.

"Of course, it's a tough situation, the suspension was tough," he said. "But at the same time my main focus was to just try to be 1-0 as a football player today."

Diane Mastnardo, a massage therapist based in Cleveland, wrote an August editorial for about the misconceptions around massage therapy in the wake of Watson's announced suspension. She has been a Browns fan her whole life, but she hasn't gone to any games this season because of the Watson signing.

Mastnardo praised the "strength and courage" of the women who have accused Watson who showed up to Sunday's game.

But Mastnardo also wants to hear from Watson.

"I'm very interested in his side of the story, and I think other massage therapists are interested in his side of the story, without lawyers or media. If there was an opportunity to have a true conversation, I think that would be amazing," she said. "I believe Deshaun did something wrong, and I believe he has the potential to redeem himself if we allow him that potential. I don't think the way [the Browns and the NFL are] handling it gives him that ability."

WATSON SAID LAST week that he wasn't sure how rusty he'd be after so much time away from the field. He also said he wasn't worried about the atmosphere he'd encounter in Houston.

After Sunday's game, he downplayed the booing but admitted to the rust after completing 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards.

"I'll just say I felt every single one of those 700 days," he said.

Watson failed to lead the Browns to an offensive touchdown and squandered Cleveland's best touchdown opportunity by throwing an intercepted pass in the end zone.

"We're not going to hold him to a crazy standard and expect him to be superman out there when he hasn't played in two years," Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said. "He's going to eventually get his rhythm and make the plays he has in the past."

Watson was asked whether he expected to be booed on the road going forward.

"I'm not sure what it's going to be, and that's not even my main focus," he said. "My main focus is really just doing my job at executing and just trying to play each and every snap. There's a lot of people that were showing support, but I didn't really focus on the negative things. I was focusing on trying to execute as much as I can."

Watson vowed to play better in next weekend's game at Cincinnati. Then, he walked out of the interview room. Down the tunnel, he collected his rollaway luggage, put on his stocking cap and got on a team bus to leave Houston again.

That was just fine with at least one Texans fan, whose sign read: "I would rather be 1-9-1 than have Deshaun Watson as my quarterback."

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