Not Just Fantasy: Navigating Deshaun Watson with Compassion

by Jakob Sanderson · NFL

Content Warning: Discussion of Sexual Violence.

Fantasy football is a complicated game. It is nowhere near as complicated as the legal system. It is less complicated still compared to the manifestations of trauma sexual violence survivors confront every day. For those who follow me for fantasy football advice, you’re familiar with my typical arguments in favour high-risk assets. However, you may have noticed a dearth of such advice as it related to Deshaun Watson. After a grand jury declined to indict, Watson has become the centre of discussion across the fantasy community. The Texans quarterback has been undoubtedly the highest-leverage asset with a largely bimodal distribution of value over the past year.  But it’s important to remember the artificiality of that statement.

I often say fantasy football is a game of strategy with football inputs. When it comes to players like Watson however it is neither just football or strategy. It is important to keep in mind that for many, the privilege to refer to a man facing over 20 charges related to sexual violence as a bimodal asset is entirely divorced from reality. You may say fantasy football is supposed to be an escape from the difficult elements of our daily lives. I would argue such an ability to escape is a privilege in and of itself. Many do not have the choice to divest the real-life ramifications from their mind when discussing a game. The ability for many of us to do so is rooted more than anything else in the lack of gender and racial diversity among the community.

A Trauma-Informed Perspective

For those who know me as a fantasy football writer and podcaster you probably know very little about my non-football life. I am a second year law student at the University of British Columbia in Canada. I’m currently on a work term at the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in the downtown east-side Vancouver. Prior to law school, I served two terms as President of the University of Manitoba Student Union. In this role I had the privilege of working with my team on gender-based violence policies at a university and government level.

Unfortunately this issue is personal for me as well as professional. I am a survivor of sexual violence during my time in university and it remains rooted in my psyche to this day. I can only speak to my personal experiences and impacts when it comes to triggering events and their manifestations. But the impacts across survivors are lasting, varied and far-reaching.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association defines trauma as “the results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Re-traumatization is common among survivors. This can occur from a specific or general trigger event which causes the body to respond physiologically as if presented with an immediate threat.

While the existence of constant news coverage of Deshaun Watson‘s grand jury decision may present a trigger event on its own, uninformed legal interpretations and the gamification by media outlets heighten the risk and damage.

Interpreting a Grand Jury Decision

Each day at the legal clinic I assist on criminal defence files. I am familiar with the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ and believe in it whole-heartedly. It is important to remember the principles such a system is based on. It is against the laws of natural justice to violate the life, liberty, or security of person. This is inscribed into Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And a similar phrase appears in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are ratified as unalienable, natural rights that governments are created to protect. Therefore, it is not without proof beyond a reasonable doubt that we deprive someone of their life or liberty. In sexual assault cases, the judge often acquits defendants despite finding the complainant to have provided credible evidence.

I am a stringent believer in proof beyond a reasonable doubt as the best available standard for criminal trials. Even still, the criminal justice system has proven time and again a traumatizing and inadequate arena to adjudicate allegations of sexual violence.

I also understand Deshaun Watson‘s criminal proceedings halted at the grand jury stage, which indicts on a lower, “probable cause” threshold. Still however, this does not mean he was ‘proven innocent.’ There is no such thing as proven innocent since you are presumed to be such until proven otherwise. Therefore, tweets such as the one below from Adam Schefter are both misinformed and damaging.

The truth does not come out at a grand jury. In fact, quite the opposite. Watson repeatedly invoked his right not to remain silent, and all evidence that was presented is now sealed. What we know is the prosecution could not compel sufficient evidence to convince 75-percent of grand jury members to bring an indictment.

Why Language Matters

We do not and cannot know what truly happened to these women. The only people who know for certain are those involved. Several of whom may be feeling a sense of despondence survivors of sexual violence everywhere can relate to. I do not say this to imply that I believe Mr. Watson is guilty. I merely state the facts; an overwhelming majority of sexual violence survivors never see their perpetrator convicted in court, and most are never even charged.

The process of proving each element of a sexual assault in court is an imperfect, insensitive, invasive, man-made creation to stand in proxy of being able to actually decipher the truth. Its stated purpose is to ensure the liberty of alleged perpetrators is not vitiated barring a degree of evidence that is often impossible to amass. Tweets like Schefter’s look past this reality. They perpetuate a damaging narrative that survivors of sexual violence are lying unless they are able to meet the legal burden of proof. They minimise the impact of life-altering trauma in favour of the perspective of a plausibly exonerated perpetrator.

On a near-weekly basis I have heart-breaking discussions with clients about why the abuse they suffered may not be provable in a court of law. The courts necessarily centre the accused in their process. There is no such requirement for the commentary of uninformed bystanders. We need not proclaim Deshaun Watson guilty to centre the perspective of survivors in our discussion of the news.

Finding A Middle-Ground

While the vast majority of fantasy content creators shared my view of Adam Schefter’s tweet, we too are complicit in perpetuating triggering commentary. In a thread from July, I discussed the dangers of gamifying Deshaun Watson‘s legal status for fantasy and I want to re-iterate that now.

First of all, I want to be absolutely clear. I am not standing on some moral high ground admonishing you for rostering Watson in fantasy football. I have drafted him in start-ups and traded for him. Along with Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott, and several other players with allegations of gender-based violence.

But I believe there is a non-hypocritical middle ground we should take. You are playing a game for money. And you’re entitled to make any decisions you wish to maximize your expected value. That does not mean you need to publicise your stance with the same speculative attitude you treat bitcoin or $AMC. The discussion of Watson the fantasy asset ought not be separated from the discussion of why he’s discussed so speculatively. Discussing his legal situation as a probabilistic event akin to draft capital, Tom Brady‘s retirement, or an injury is unnecessary. Producing worthwhile content about fantasy football is a passion of mine but on a global scale it is rather unimportant. We should allow certain sources of content to remain subservient to greater societal concerns.

The Dangers of Gamification

Discussion of Deshaun Watson‘s status primarily in relation to its fantasy football impact is unintentional gamification of sexual violence.

To this day I struggle to speak openly about my experiences for fear I won’t be taken seriously, most of all by myself. Our society has continually re-enforced a narrative that acts of sexual violence are permissible or theoretical if not proven. The seriousness of the action can not be set aside in favour of its impact on a game. This trivializes its impact on people in day-to-day life. It can re-enforce self-doubt and shame among survivors.

This is not only re-traumatizing, but rooted in structures which contribute to sexual violence’s prevalence in society. For survivors, seeing Watson’s pending legal status discussed in terms of its impact on your wallet is all too prescient a reminder of systemic barriers to justice which already exist. It is a constant reminder that the fantasy football space, like our legal and political decision-making bodies, are dominated primarily by those least likely to face the impacts of sexual violence.

The Final Word

I don’t expect everyone reading this piece to resonate with it. I want to re-iterate I have no intention to speak for anyone’s view on the matter but my own. Even among those who align with most of my sentiment, you may wish for an article to escape such troubling themes. All I can hope is you remain aware of the privilege in such an escape. I ask you to keep in mind those most seriously affected when discussing Watson moving forward. Exercise compassion, and centre survivors in your commentary above the fantasy ramifications.