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Greg Cote: Women keep accusing Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct. But will it matter to NFL teams?

Greg Cote: Women keep accusing Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct. But will it matter to NFL teams?

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Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans in action against the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 3, 2021 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.

Deshaun Watson (4) of the Houston Texans in action against the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 3, 2021 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images/TNS)

The narrowing of possibilities for Deshaun Watson’s football future plays out in lockstep with the gradual disintegration of his reputation.

The NFL has never seen anything quite like it. We watch in fascination, as we would a train wreck unfolding in slow motion.

As free agency plods on and players change uniforms, the league‘s most coveted perhaps-available superstar quarterback continues the subject of pursuit by both teams and women alleging sexual misconduct.

The women now outnumber the teams, which may or may not be related.

It’s a mess from every angle.

Watson signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension with the Houston Texans just months ago, but now is adamantly estranged from the club to the degree he is demanding a trade.

The Texans are flummoxed on how to play this unexpected hand, continuing to say “Deshaun’s our guy” as if calling the bluff of a man who isn’t bluffing. They could have declared the trade window open and reaped the riches of a multiteam bidding war. Instead they have watched potential suitors sign other quarterbacks and come to realize Watson holds all the cards on where he might agree to be traded.

The Athletic’s Michael Lombardi reported Watson has narrowed his choices to the Denver Broncos or San Francisco 49ers. Meaning he has eliminated reported, rumored or potential suitors notably including the Miami Dolphins, along with the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers and several others.

Now, though, fans who might once have been devastated to see their team out of the Watson sweepstakes might now consider themselves lucky.

Because, now, in Watson, the team that wins him is getting both an elite 25-year-old quarterback in his prime, but also a man with a tarnished reputation chased by a spate of lawsuits that have the NFL investigating whether Watson has violated the league’s personal conduct policy.

No criminal charges have joined the civil litigation, but that could change.

Do starstruck teams interested in landing Watson care about the allegations? Well, enough to pay attention, at least.

“My first thought was, ‘Somebody is trying to take advantage of Deshaun’,” an NFL general manager told USA Today. “But if they’re taking it to this level and are willing to put themselves in court, they must have something.”

Watson’s mess began when one woman, a massage therapist hired by the player, recently filed suit alleging sexual misconduct during a session.

Emboldened, several other women have since come forward — a strength-in-numbers phenomenon we have seen repeatedly in the #MeToo era, from gymnast accusers of Dr. Larry Nasser and in many other instances since.

Watson has denied the allegations in broad terms, saying, “I have never treated any woman with anything other than utmost respect.”

But the civil suits now number at last 11 and that total may grow further, said the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee.

Text exchanges released by Buzbee included one between one of the women and Watson in which he responded: “Sorry about you feeling uncomfortable. Never were the intentions. Lmk [Let me know] if you want to work in the future. My apologies.”

At least one woman has alleged Watson forced her to engage in oral sex.

Said Watson’s agent, David Mulugheta, on Twitter: “Sexual assault is real. Victims should be heard, offenders prosecuted. “Individuals fabricate stories in pursuit of financial gain often. Their victims should be heard, and those offenders also prosecuted. I simply hope we keep this same energy with the truth.”

Innocent until proven guilty. But, as that unnamed GM noted, one allegation might be easy to dismiss or to question motives. A dozen or more allegations ... not so easy.

Saturday, Buzbee announced on Facebook that his legal team on Monday would submit affidavits and evidence from several women to the Houston Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney, and request that a grand jury be impaneled.

We cannot know today how this will play out. What will become of the lawsuits. Where the NFL investigation will lead. Whether criminal charges may yet result.

What we can say safely is that NFL teams and sports in general have a well-earned reputation for abiding all manner of blemish off the field if the talent on it is great enough.

Watson’s football career will almost certainly survive this, even if his good name and once-impeccable image almost certainly will not.

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