Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson faces challenge building trust with fans, community

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal

BEREA — The rehabilitation of Deshaun Watson began Friday. But for many, the new Browns quarterback has a long way to go to gain their trust.

It will take more than one season, especially if he is suspended by the league.

Two Texas grand juries have declined to indict the former Houston Texans player on criminal charges as he faces 22 civil suits from massage therapists accusing him of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

Those who only care about football are ecstatic the Browns are replacing Baker Mayfield with a 26-year-old three-time Pro Bowler who could lead the long-suffering franchise to its first Super Bowl. Their blind trust has not wavered through all the hirings and firings of coaches and general managers and what will be the 33rd starting quarterback since 1999.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson listens to questions asked by members of the local media during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday.

And No. 33 might not be Watson, but new backup Jacoby Brissett if the NFL levies punishment.

But for others, swallowing hard and celebrating victories won’t be enough. For those who know victims, are survivors of sexual assault or don’t want to send the wrong message to their sons or daughters, putting on the brown and orange might give them pause.

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Some will consider the Browns’ reputation forever sullied. Some will follow other teams. Some will give up on the NFL, joining the ranks of those who had enough after the move to Baltimore.

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As Browns co-owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam gambled by giving Watson a $230 million guaranteed contract, $80 million higher than any previous guarantee, they also gambled with the faith of some Browns fans.

Thus far, Jimmy Haslam said he hasn’t seen a dent in season ticket sales.

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“We haven’t seen numbers in the last couple of days,” he said, speaking on Zoom. “The last time we looked and it’s a little misleading because the renewal date ends either today or next Friday, so there’s a rush. But it appears there are way more people renewing than canceling tickets.”

Dee Haslam added, “We do respect individuals that have strong feelings. We understand those feelings.”

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, takes questions from local media during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday.

At his introductory press conference, Watson repeatedly maintained his innocence. He was well-coached and composed.

But he insisted he didn’t need counseling. Even if he is found innocent in all of the civil suits, some might have expected him to be willing to talk to an expert to gain a greater understanding. He will be forever linked to the mantle of the cause he represents.

“It’s hard for me to say the counseling part because I don’t have a problem. I don’t have an issue, and that’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning,” he said. “I’m willing to talk to people about certain situations to make sure I’m not getting back in this.

“But like I said before, I’ve never assaulted anyone, I’ve never disrespected anyone, I’ve always been respectful. That’s what I’ve always stood on and who I am as a person.”

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Watson did himself no favors by saying he had no regrets, even though that was likely necessary because of the ongoing civil cases with some who have filed suit yet to give depositions.

“I don’t have any regrets. The things that are off the field right now that came up caught me by surprise because I never did anything that these people are alleging,” Watson said.

Watson did seem to grasp a bit of the trust issue, saying it might take time for him to resume the charity work that he’s done in Houston, his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, and in Clemson, South Carolina, where Watson led the Tigers to the 2016 national championship.

“I understand that and I know that there’s going to be a stain that’s probably going to stick with me for a while,” Watson said.

“The biggest thing for me is as a person, I’m genuine, hard-working, [a] servant-leader who loves to be social in the community, who loves to give back. I want to be able to show that eventually and get out into the community ... what I want to do is be able to get back to that brand or get back to that person that people knew I was before all of these allegations.”

“Eventually” was the keyword there, at least when it comes to the journey ahead.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, poses for a portrait with general manager Andrew Berry, left, and head coach Kevin Stefanski during Watson's introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday.

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But Jimmy Haslam knows trust in Watson won’t come immediately. For some, it may be impossible.

“We as a family, we as ownership, we as an organization understood this was going to be difficult, that there were going to be a lot of people who were not comfortable with it, who will criticize it,” Jimmy Haslam said.

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“We understand it will take time. Some people may never get over it. But here again, we’re confident in Deshaun and in the organization that over a period of time he’ll be able to gain their trust.”

Watson may have thought the tough part was over after the press conference. But what could be his long road back to respectability was only in its first mile.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.