Webster Professor weighs in on media coverage of Deshaun Watson allegations

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Editor’s note: This story contains alleged accounts of sexual assault. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or at https://www.rainn.org

Deshaun Watson is a generational talent. During his rookie season, Watson was on pace to surpass most rookie quarterback records before an injury put a halt on his historic year. Watson quarterbacked for the Houston Texans, one of the worst franchises of the past two decades. When he dropped back to pass the football, he filled Texan fans with hope.

Watson grew unhappy with the Texans’ management prior to the 2021 season and requested a trade in February 2021. Reports began to emerge detailing Watson’s unhappiness with the organization, which traded his All-Pro counterpart, DeAndre Hopkins. The reports alluded to Watson being willing to sit out of the season. Speculation in sports media hit a frenzy, with pundits and outlets analyzing the teams that should trade for the 26-year-old superstar. The list of teams were long, and it seemed a blockbuster trade was imminent. 

Not long after, a series of serious allegations were levied against the Texans’ quarterback. Tony Buzbee, a Houston-based attorney, filed civil lawsuits alleging a diverse array of sexual misconduct on behalf of 22 women.  

The man that brought hope to a franchise became a haunting specter for 22 women. In a letter published under the name “Jane Doe” in The Daily Beast, one accuser wrote: 

“Deshaun Watson came into my place of work, my sole means of a modest income, and destroyed my mental health and my career. He destroyed my love for my job, my trust in strangers, and my foreseeable future. He terrified me, and tried to gratify himself at my expense. He degraded me. Am I not a human? Am I not worthy of justice?”

The women accusing Watson were all massage therapists working in various parts of the country. In Case No. 16298, Watson is accused of sexual assault for forcing a spa worker to perform oral sex. In nine of the lawsuits, Watson is accused of “exposing himself” during the massage sessions. In the majority of the filings, Watson is accused of touching the women with his penis or asking to be touched inappropriately during the massage sessions. Some of the women described Watson as “acting aggressive.” The allegations range from sexual misconduct to sexual assault. 

Watson was subsequently investigated by the FBI and Houston Police Department. Currently, Houston police have forwarded their findings to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and Watson is facing 10 criminal complaints related to the alleged conduct. According to Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, a grand jury decision could be made by April 1. Watson potentially faces felony or misdemeanor charges.

“Is there a GM willing to commit three first-round picks plus a little something for Watson when said GM has no idea when Watson will take the field for him?” asked veteran NFL columnist and reporter Peter King in his Football Morning in America column. “I wouldn’t, without legal clarity. That’s for sure.” 

Buzbee, representing the accusers, has been open about his tenacity with these cases, with no intention of backing down. With legal woes and actions still pending, it seems less likely Watson will play during the 2022 season for any team. Despite this reality, the trade speculation for Watson is as rampant as ever in sports media due to the continued interest of some NFL owners. Rather than ask “Did he or didn’t he,” people are asked to imagine what Watson would look like in an Eagles, Dolphins or Buccaneers jersey.

On Jan. 17, Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL linebacker, in a Tweet said “The Eagles should commit to Jalen Hurts unless they can get 1. Russell Wilson, 2. Deshaun Watson, or 3. Aaron Rodgers.”

A Feb. 24 article in Sports Illustrated read “Deshaun Watson Trade: Houston Texans Bidders ‘Lurking and Planning’ – Pending One Issue,” reducing the accusations of 22 women to a pending issue and maximizing the Watson trade-hype. 

However, why would sports reporters spend so much emphasis on unlikely trade scenarios, vice analyzing the cases? Could focusing on Watson’s play status and minimizing the accusations against him send a poor message to consumers? 

Julie Smith, an instructor at Webster University’s School of Communications and author of “Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World” has an answer:

“It’s all about the money,” Smith said. 

Smith believes coverage of Watson’s accusations can be understood with greater media literacy, which entails understanding how and why media is produced. According to Smith, a publication’s only responsibility is to their stockholders.

“In the ad age, it’s all about the commercials because the market is different,” Smith said, “Obviously, you want to cater your message to the target market because that’s why you exist … Outlets exist to sell advertisers to their audiences. So, they are going to create content for their audience.” 

According to Smith, publications such as Sports Illustrated will focus on the “sports aspect [of the story]” while publications such as Washington Post and other papers of record will provide more comprehensive coverage of the allegations. 

“A sports journalist might actually think Watson is a creep, but to say that would alienate readers,” Smith said.

Smith believes understanding audiences is vital to understanding how and why stories are reported the way they are to consumers. Whenever consuming media, Smith encourages readers to ask: “Who is the sender of the message? Who is the intended audience? How is the message constructed to get my attention? What information is left out? Who profits from the message? How can other people interpret the message differently than me?”

In the age of mass communication, there are numerous outlets to consume from. Still, Smith asserts we gravitate toward coverage that we prefer. Smith believes our own biases play a role in the production of certain media messages.

“We don’t like to hear things we don’t want to hear. Why would we do that when we have so many options?” Smith asks. “It’s not necessarily a good thing because there are some things we need to know… Media define the world for us. The media we consume changes and shapes the world and how we see ourselves.” 

While an assault victim may see the trade speculation of Watson as “distasteful” or “part of rape culture,” Smith asserts some consumers will ignore the allegations, hoping for Watson’s innocence if he ends up playing for their favorite team. 

“Is it the industry, not necessarily the journalism?” Smith asks us. “Aren’t we blind to the people we love? Aren’t we blind to our teams? We have blind loyalty. Maybe that’s why people are talking about whether he will ‘play for my team next’ because you don’t want to acknowledge what has happened to those 22 women?” 

When asked about the ethics surrounding coverage that minimizes the accusations, she said: “If the media actually cared about the moral upbringing of our society, it would be a very different animal than it is now.” 

When asked to provide a statement to The Journal, Buzbee said: 

“The women who brought this case are true heroes. As everyone speculates about Deshaun Watson’s future or where or if he will play football, we are instead focused on bringing him to justice, in court in front of a jury.” 

Deshaun Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, was unavailable for comment due to a trial.

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Caleb Sprous
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