On March 18, Robyn Lockner was driving to Cleveland to get her husband’s truck repaired when her phone began blowing up with texts and calls about superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Cleveland Browns had just announced they traded for Watson. The problem: Watson .
Three years ago, Lockner, an Ohio resident and diehard Browns fan, created the Cleveland Browns Women Group on Facebook, a female-only place where women could share their enthusiasm for the Browns with other women. In a typically male-dominated field, the Facebook group gives female football fans a place to join the community.
During her 90-minute car ride home, Lockner hopped on the phone and discussed the trade with fellow Browns fans. “It felt like a slap in the face to women,” Lockner said. “I just could not believe the front office would do that to the fanbase. Especially with the rise of women in sports and women within the organization and coaching staff.”
In Mar. 2021, Ashley Solis, a 35-year-old massage therapist from Houston, Texas filed the first of 24 sexual misconduct claim against Watson.
On Mar. 11, 2022, the Harris County district attorney in Texas presented nine criminal charges against Watson to a grand jury. The grand jury declined to indict Watson, allowing him to avoid criminal charges. Despite clearing criminal charges, the NFL is independently investigating the case and may decide to suspend him from play.
But Watson still must deal with claims in civil court. In late June, the 26-year-old quarterback faced 24 civil lawsuits for insensitive and coercive sexual behavior, and sexual assault. Watson reached a settlement with 20 of the women. The remaining four lawsuits are still ongoing, including the one from his first accuser, Solis.
The Cleveland Browns announced they would pay the three-time pro bowler $230 million over five years. The Browns made Watson one of the highest-paid players in the NFL and gave him the highest valued fully guaranteed contractin league history.
In terms of talent, Watson’s signing was a no-brainer. In 2020, Watson led the league in passing yards, yards per attempt and finished top-three in both completion rate and yards per game.
But to Lockner and many other fans, Watson’s alleged behavior off the field trump complicates his star role in the NFL. Lockner’s Facebook group, with its 6,300 members, has been exceptionally active in wake of the signing. Lockner said some women have left the group because they can no longer support the Browns.
“I do believe [the Cleveland Browns] took into account how the women fan base would feel. What I don’t believe is they realized how big the female fan base is,” Lockner said.
Despite her frustration with Watson’s signing, Lockner says she will still support the Browns.
“I always will root for the Browns,” she said. “There are still 52 other men on that roster that deserve our support. We may not like a particular player, but we still love the team.”
Other members of the group had similar feelings.
“This has brought out that side of us that we have naturally as nurturers and defenders. It’s understandable because that’s just how women are built,” said Journi Bast, a member of the Cleveland Browns Women Group.
Bast said in an interview that she is a victim of sexual assault and has an uncle who was falsely accused of sexual assault and has been exonerated.
“I’ve seen this thing firsthand from both sides, so I understand,” Bast said.
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC) saw a large increase in donations after the signing of Watson.
“Calls to our hotline increased 150%,” said Donisha Green, director of community engagement for the crisis center.
“Of the 2,000 new donors that have invested in the center, a number have done so in the name of the 22 women. They have done so in the dollar amount of a season pass or in the dollar amount of a single ticket,” said Greene.
Greene said she has a relative who was sexually assaulted, which is part of the reason she can no longer cheer for the Browns.
“For 29 years my family has been supporting the Browns. But this is the first year in 29 years of my life I won’t be going to the opening game,” Greene said.
Browns fan Logan Shaffer supports the Watson trade.
“From a football standpoint, it’s a very obvious move,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s how good were you on the field not what did you necessarily do off of it. That’s just the harsh reality of the game.”
Shaffer’s fan page “Browns Culture” has more than 17,000 followers on Instagram and posts the latest news about all things Browns, including celebratory posts following the trade.
“If it comes out that he is guilty, then, I will completely change my opinion. But for now, I feel comfortable that he perhaps didn’t do it. And then we can move along and win a championship,” Shaffer said.
On August 18, the NFL and the NFL Players Association came to an agreement regarding Watson’s punishment for the upcoming season. Watson will serve an 11-game suspension without pay in addition to a $5 million fine. The $5 million will be distributed to different nonprofit organizations that aim to educate young people about sexual assault prevention as well as to support survivors.