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Regardless of Eagles’ interest in Deshaun Watson, his legal and ethical hurdles aren’t going anywhere

NFL teams including the Eagles might do their due diligence in considering a trade for Watson, but there are numerous barriers to any deal being completed.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs for a touchdown in the second quarter of a game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018.
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs for a touchdown in the second quarter of a game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff photographer

The Eagles’ interest in Deshaun Watson might be apparent, but they’re likely in a waiting game.

The Houston Texans’ three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who is currently the subject of a criminal investigation and is being sued by 22 women in civil court for sexual assault and/or misconduct, has been on the trade market for months and could be on it months longer.

The women are massage therapists, and he’s accused of sexual misconduct during massage sessions. NFL teams doing their due diligence will either have to wait for the court process and investigation to play out or take on numerous risks involved with trading for Watson.

Former Eagles president Joe Banner said there are several factors that make a Watson trade far from imminent as teams conduct their own investigations.

“There’s too many open questions, although there are teams working behind the scenes to do their own evaluation as to what the risks are of everything from suspension to legal issues,” Banner told the Inquirer. “But I do think that if the situation were — I don’t want to say resolved, but if they had done enough research to feel confident in the outcome, then [the Eagles] would be interested.”

Watson, 26, has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league since the Texans drafted him out of Clemson in 2017. He led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards last season and threw for 33 touchdowns on an underachieving Texans team. The Eagles entered training camp with second-year signal caller Jalen Hurts as the presumptive starter, but have interest in adding Watson.

Watson had been lobbying for a trade before the allegations surfaced, and the Texans initially refused to comply. They since have set an asking price of five high draft picks and starting-quality players, ESPN has reported.

The NFL has launched its own investigation into Watson, and reportedly has interviewed 10 of the women suing him. Several teams are doing their own investigations independent of the league, and the detail each team yields can vary.

“Every team has their own security department which is usually a former police officer, FBI agent,” Banner said. “In addition to providing security for the team, because of their background, they tend to have a lot of relationships around the country or they can access relationships to do research or investigations or get information behind the scenes. The Eagles have that.”

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman isn’t allowed to discuss specific players on other teams, but said last month that the front office always does its due diligence on players potentially on the trade market.

“I think our job is to always evaluate every option at every position,” Roseman said. “We’re always constantly doing that and looking about what’s going on in the league.”

Still, any team involved in a potential Watson trade would have to wait on outcomes from the criminal investigation and from civil court. There’s also the question about who conducts these investigations, both for the league and each team, and whether they have the necessary experience to do so appropriately.

Justine Andronici, a Pennsylvania lawyer well-versed in sexual assault cases who represented several survivors in the Jerry Sandusky trial, said it requires well-trained personnel to properly research these cases. Sports Illustrated reported last week that NFL investigators had a “victim-blaming” approach, which included asking women involved in the lawsuits what they were wearing during alleged incidents.

“You wouldn’t ask a pediatrician to do brain surgery,” Andronici said. “This is a very specialized field in which people have to have the background training in how survivors behave, how perpetrators behave, and what kinds of sensitivities are needed in order to conduct investigations in a way that minimally re-traumatizes. Any investigation re-traumatizes survivors, but you want to have a lot of sensitivity toward unnecessary re-traumatization. It sounds to me, from the limited amount of reading that I’ve done on this, that the NFL may not have managed that effectively.”

Because of the nature of these independent investigations, Andronici said even a conclusion in which Watson’s culpability is murky could lead to significant backlash for the team that acquires him.

“If we don’t see an outcome here that vindicates the allegations of the alleged victims, I still think the public will have learned something about the kinds of ways that men in positions of power leverage that power in ways that could be considered exploitative, particularly toward women with a lot less power,” Andronici said. “It will be very disappointing, to me, to see the NFL and any other institution not respond appropriately when you have allegations of this gravity from this multitude of victims. We are at the tipping point where we need to start to see these larger institutions change.”

The Eagles, led by owner Jeffrey Lurie and Banner as the GM, notably signed Michael Vick in 2009 after he spent nearly two years in jail for his part in a dogfighting operation. There was immediate criticism when the Eagles signed Vick, but he went on to play five seasons with the team and rehabilitated his image to some.

Given his experience with Vick, Banner said he expects the optics of a potential Watson trade to be difficult to navigate.

“The PR problem would be huge,” Banner said. “I lived through it when I signed Michael Vick. But you gotta, No. 1, start by believing that you’re doing the right thing, and you’ve researched, and based on the information you have, that you’re doing the right thing. Then you’ve gotta just trust yourself and realize that there’s going to be a lot of upset immediately.”

It was reported earlier this week that a grand jury investigation was launched to determine whether Watson will face criminal charges. It’s worth noting the standard for a guilty verdict in criminal court is different from the standards of civil court, although both are high.

“I would point out that, given the incredible stereotyping and extreme mythology that victims are up against in the civil context, it is still very difficult to obtain a guilty verdict,” Andronici said. “Neither is a soft, or easy standard, but in the criminal side, because the consequence is a loss of freedom, technically the legal standard is higher.”

There’s a chance Watson isn’t charged criminally, but could be found liable in civil court. There’s also a chance these lawsuits could be settled.

If Watson’s cases are resolved in a settlement, he could still face punishment from the league if he is found to have violated the league’s personal conduct policy. Because he requested a trade before the allegations against him came to light, Watson has been either missing Houston’s training camp practices or doing very little during them.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding Watson’s situation and his standing as an elite quarterback in the league, Banner said he’s skeptical the Texans will trade him anytime soon.

“They’ve got the same unresolved issues that the potential acquiring team has,” he said. “They have a lot of questions that I’m sure they don’t know the answers to. They may be working on it, they may be gaining information, but they don’t have the final information. And he’s got a phenomenal contract going forward. You control his rights for a long time, and I would argue, he’s a top-five quarterback in the league ... You’re going to be really really cautious before you’re going to give in on it.”

With the season approaching, there’s likely a decision coming from the NFL regarding Watson. Because he requested a trade, he could sit out the beginning of the season in an agreement with the Texans. The NFL could also put him on the commissioner’s exempt list, which is basically paid leave.

Even if the league makes a call soon, Banner said he expects to see potential trade partners continue to stall for time.

“The league has no choice, it’s gonna have to make a decision very soon,” Banner said. “Obviously the teams can kind of keep buying time, which is what I think they’ll do for now.”