Amid focus on NFL suspension, counseling could be critical for Deshaun Watson | Opinion

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Let’s face it: Suspending Deshaun Watson for a full season, or 10 games or 6 games, largely addresses the optics of this bizarre case that has hovered over the NFL for a year-and-half.

He’ll get back on the field for a regular-season game eventually.

Fine him? The new Cleveland Browns quarterback, with a fully guaranteed $230 million contract, can undoubtedly absorb that financial hit.

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Hopefully, the real game-changer in Watson’s case isn’t discipline. It’s professional help.

A quick flashback: When Watson, 26, arrived in Cleveland in late March, dismissing the allegations of sexual misconduct during massages made in 24 then-active lawsuits, he punted on the idea of entering counseling.

“I don’t have a problem,” he said, nearly six months ago. “I don’t have an issue.”

Perhaps mandatory treatment and counseling – not recommended in the original ruling from disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson but a potential component in the looming decision from Peter C. Harvey in ruling on the NFL’s appeal – will not only save potential victims in the future, also but save Watson from himself. Treatment may conceivably address the root causes. In other words, reveal it to heal it.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during warm-ups before an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during warm-ups before an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Fast forward to Friday, before Watson made his preseason debut at Jacksonville. During a two-minute interview with Aditi Kinkhabwala, Watson said he wants to continue with the counseling sessions he began last spring. He also, for the first time publicly, expressed remorse “to all the women that I have impacted in this situation.”

It’s about time. And maybe it's also about timing and some optics from Watson, awaiting a decision from Harvey, aka Roger Goodell’s designee for the NFL’s appeal of the six-game suspension recommended by Robinson, the former judge jointly appointed by the league and NFL Players Association to handle disciplinary cases..

Harvey’s decision could come as soon as Monday, with the NFL pushing for at least a year-long ban that might address some of the outrage that flowed long before Robinson’s ruling was announced on Aug. 1.

It’s also worth mentioning that Robinson noted in her decision that Watson never expressed any contrition.

So, with the case in Harvey’s hands, Watson suddenly attempted to move the meter on remorse.

No, Watson wasn’t charged in any of the incidents that spanned 17 months during his tenue with the Houston Texans. Two grand juries weighed allegations but didn’t move to advance the cases. Watson agreed to settle the civil cases of 23 of his accusers.

But the court of public opinion – with arrows directed at the reactionary NFL, slammed again for its methods of addressing issues that involve the mistreatment of women – is still very much in session.

Some might harshly suggest that Watson never step foot on an NFL field again. There’s also something else to be said about how the NFL’s hammer can make a statement about the pain and suffering of the alleged victims that goes beyond the financial settlements.

Others might argue that without a criminal conviction, even a short suspension is too much. And when weighing other cases in recent years that have come across Goodell’s desk – Ben Roethlisberger and Greg Hardy, to name two – the grounds for increasing the six-game suspension seem shaky.

The NFL, of course, had to throw appeal Robinson’s original ruling while public opinion apparently shows the appetite for a longer suspension. And if Goodell, who last week repeated Robinson’s description of Watson’s behavior as “predatory,” gets his way with a much longer ban, it would send a message to others in the NFL that now defines the standards in such cases.

Yet the most critical element moving forward for Watson is the treatment and counseling, the distinction between the two hinging on strategies for corrective behavior. Regardless of Watson's talent, getting help in dealing with his issues — and conceivably preventing future allegations of sexual misconduct — matters more than his ability to ignite Super Bowl hopes.

Absent from Robinson’s decision was a mandate for treatment. That strikes me as a big miss.

It was indeed within Robinson’s range to prescribe treatment and counseling – or at the minimum an assessment – as a condition attached to discipline. Robinson saw fit to require that Watson limit his massage therapy to club-directed sessions or club-approved therapists. But she stopped short of mandating counseling, which has been standard in many cases in recent years that apply to violations of the personal conduct policy.

The labor pact stipulates that a player who violates the conduct policy will be “offered” a formal clinical evaluation. But it also spells out that such an evaluation, counseling or other services are not disciplinary, meaning that it is the decision of the player to seek such help.

It’s unclear whether counseling could be part of a settlement agreement between Watson and the league that would prevent a ruling from Harvey.

Apparently, Watson voluntarily decided to undergo counseling – although it’s hardly a stretch to think that Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam encouraged, if not suggested it.

It’s also fair to wonder whether Watson, engulfed in damage control, has had a legitimate change of heart after declaring a few months ago that he had no regrets for the incidents that flipped his life upside down. Hopefully so.

And perhaps there’s an even greater impetus for this new start for Watson to include significant work on himself that goes far beyond throwing a football.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why NFL suspension shouldn't be lone focal point for Deshaun Watson