NFL’s statement on Deshaun Watson leaves door open for paid leave at any time

Some believed that the failure of the NFL to promptly place Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on paid leave when he reported for training camp on Sunday meant that the league won’t do it. The statement issued Tuesday by the league proves how incorrect that conclusion was.

“The NFL’s review of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson remains ongoing and active,” the NFL said. “We are working cooperatively with the Houston Police Department and ensuring that the NFL’s inquiry does not interfere with their investigation. As we continue to gather additional information and monitor law enforcement developments, we will make appropriate decisions consistent with the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Personal Conduct Policy. At this time there are no restrictions on Watson’s participation in club activities.”

The statement never expressly says it, but the message is unmistakable. The decision to not place Watson on paid leave can change, based on additional information that may become available.

As a practical matter, the league is always one news item away from deciding to place Watson on the Commissioner Exempt list. One additional fact, one additional allegation, one additional development, one additional interview or statement could be the one that causes the NFL to conclude that the kitchen has gotten too hot.

Remember, the Personal Conduct Policy and the paid leave provision of it weren’t created by the NFL to revolutionize the notion of meting out justice in a fair and orderly way. It’s a PR tool. It’s about policing the private lives of players in order to placate those who would say as to a given player, “How can that person be on an NFL roster?”

The paid leave provision, developed seven years ago, creates a path to parking a player based simply on allegations, when those allegations (and the prospect of broadcast partners discussing them during a game) become too much for the league to bear. The standard for invoking it, then, isn’t based on precedent or objectivity or basic notions of justice. Paid leave happens when the league decides that the situation has become too awkward, too uncomfortable, too embarrassing to keep the player around.

The presumption of innocence doesn’t matter. The various protections under the Constitution don’t matter. The league, foolishly insisting that paid leave doesn’t amount to punishment (not letting a football player play football unquestionably is punishment), will send a guy home when the league decides that his mere presence places a patina on Big Shield.

As to Watson, time will tell whether the league gets to the point where it says, “Enough.” If/when (likely, when) the criminal complaints are presented to a grand jury, will that be the point? Will it happen if/when he’s indicted for one or more crimes? Will it happen if more lawsuits are filed?

Regardless of how it happens, the point is that it can happen. And that reality needs to be considered by the Texans and any interested teams when it comes to potentially trading his contract.