A little over a week ago, you could say a lot about the direction of the Atlanta Falcons. You probably wouldn’t have questioned whether they were going about things the right way.
Even after the public embarrassment of seeing star wideout Calvin Ridley earn a historic suspension from the NFL for gambling, the team’s handling of the situation — for not sticking over the Philadelphia Eagles with Ridley pre-punishment — bolstered the team’s standing in the league. They had treated Ridley right, by all accounts, ever since he had left the team to take care of his mental health in October. They’re the solid citizens when things go badly, and even though they were hardly squeaky clean, the Falcons were an organization that rarely found themselves in the news for the wrong reasons.
You never know what happens behind closed doors, and it’s the NFL. Nobody’s locker is spotless. The Falcons, though, had established themselves under owner Arthur Blank as one of the more respectable franchises. They’re active in the community, they seemed to take good care of the players on their roster, they’ve got cheap hot dogs, they don’t draft or sign players with off-field issues (lol), Blank is more philanthropic than most NFL owners (at least on the surface). Hell, they even got all their players vaccinated against COVID-19 first!
We cull together what we see on the surface and we paint an image in our head of something that might or might not be true — a simulacra that comforts us with something we love. For years, it’s been easy to paint an image of the Falcons being a “good” organization — one of the teams that “does it the right way,” treats their players and coaches well, cares about its fans and its community — basically, the opposite of the Washington Commanders. Blank has been seen as the anti-Dan Snyder, one of the owners who didn’t seem to have his head too far up his own ass to be able to see the sunshine.
There were cracks in that facade. The Falcons were quick to get rid of Torrey Green when allegations of sexual assault came to light and did the same for Ra’Shede Hageman with allegations of domestic violence, but that happened after they took a shot on drafting Prince Shembo despite sexual assault allegations in college, and they turned around and cut him after he faced felony animal cruelty charges that were later dropped. Former Falcons greats have also spoken about feeling slighted or worse by the organization, as Andre Rison did on Falcoholic Live last year.
In a week, the Falcons revealed that the whole thing was more rickety than you might have imagined, that they were just another football team. The team, long thought to be one of the “character counts” organizations in the NFL, very nearly bet its future on a player with 22 allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The Deshaun Watson fiasco is going to stick with the Falcons. It’s as public a courting of an NFL player since Peyton Manning was a free agent or Herschel Walker was put on the block, and a billion times grosser and more desperate. Nobody will tell you Watson wouldn’t be worth the on-field potential, but anyone with half a brain and even a sliver of conscience could’ve told you the Watson situation was dicey at best. Watson isn’t just a football player, after all.
He’s a public figure with a staggering amount of deeply troubling allegations on his ledger — Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby/Donald Trump/R.Kelly levels of alleged predatory behavior. Not that one allegation isn’t disgusting and troubling enough — but twenty-plus women have accused Watson of things that would make your skin crawl. You can read them here. The odds of Watson ever being charged remained low due to the nature of how sexual assault/harassment claims are processed in the criminal justice system, but the volume itself should highlight the historic significance of Watson’s situation. He represents far, far more than football — he represents a young NFL star accused of exercising his power and status to terrorize women.
Watson is not a Falcon, and already, this story is on the cusp of becoming background, with the team saying they were “exploring” a trade for him but never expected to get him, despite multiple reports that he was talking to free agents and trying to pitch them on joining him in Atlanta before the Browns came in with their blockbuster offer. He is a Cleveland Brown, and it will be the foreboding cloud that will loom over that franchise for a long while yet. It was a cloud that almost seemed ready to park itself over the Falcons. They say winning solves everything, but not in this case. More will come out on Watson in the 22 civil suits pending for him, the NFL will eventually share its decision on a suspension and it’s always possible more allegations could come out in the future, though for the sake of everyone involved we hope Watson is not involved in anything further in the future. You’ll see the phrase “sell your soul” come up a lot with what the Browns have done to trade for Watson, but it very easily could’ve been Atlanta getting all the heat. The franchise seems to have wanted it that way.
To boot, the way the franchise seems to have done Ryan in the whole fiasco is a troubling precedent for a franchise that has long seemed to have been about doing the absolute opposite. Football is a business, yes, but the Falcons always seemed to be a family business. Sometimes, that might produce bad football decisions, but not bad human ones.
Now, the Falcons are one of the four teams who publicly lobbied for Watson to be the face of the franchise for years to come, though 13 reportedly expressed some level of interest. They seem to be the runner-up in the whole ordeal. Even if it didn’t happen, it almost did. That’s enough to demand this franchise answer for what happened, to explain thoroughly why this was the route it chose to take, instead of dismissing it as “exploring” a trade and hoping to move past it quickly.
The reasons might be what the most cynical mind would suspect — that they were willing to look past the allegations to run the hometown hero narrative, gets butts in empty seats, sell jerseys and win football games. It’s the defense that even people with tons of baggage like Watson can make you money and get you the success that keeps that money coming in regularly — the point of a team’s existence. It’s the expectation that they know most fans will have short memories—and that many others simply do not care—and that touchdowns cover up past allegations. It’s, they’ll say, not that they don’t care about what’s alleged, but that they’re willing to live with it if it means that the team can win Super Bowls and sell PSLs. It’s their belief that they can help a player like Watson rebuild his name, as Watson himself has admitted he needs to do, while getting everything they want out of the arrangement.
The hopeful side is that the Falcons had wanted to do what I just outlined, but having failed to land the player, they’ll recognize this was a lapse in judgement, a mistake borne of haste and a desire for a shortcut in their rebuild. That’s likely naivety speaking, however.
Either way, answers are needed. People need to understand, as much as they can, why the team chose to do what it did. Lying is easy and half-truths are even easier, and you probably won’t ever get the full truth from this team. But to all the people still disturbed as to why the team wanted to make Watson the fixture point of the franchise in the first place, answers will at least add clarity. For those who never cared about the accusations against Watson, knowing more about why the Falcons pursued him, when they got involved, and whether they’d consider doing it again for another gifted player facing serious allegations will still illuminate this team’s future, which is valuable information to have.
In the end, the cynical side to this coin might just be the right side, which would certainly put to rest the idea that this team ever had bedrock convictions about right and wrong that couldn’t be liquefied if the right talent came along.
If it is, and this incident was a bug and not a feature, Blank and company should clear the air, be honest about what happened and, hell, maybe even apologize and promise to do better. We’re not going to hold our breath for that, though.
The hope, in the end, is that the team will learn something from this pursuit and carefully weigh the condemnation and praise from fans before jumping feet-first into a franchise-rocking decision they could not have possibly had the time to do due diligence on. Acting like it didn’t happen or playing coy with reality only proves the cynic right.