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The Cleveland Browns’ regular season won’t begin until Sept. 11 when they play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, but the team has already notched the most unconscionable of victories.

Deshaun Watson, accused by at least two dozen women of committing sexual misconduct against them in Texas, was suspended for six games for violating the National Football League’s personal conduct policy. He wasn’t fined, and he’ll be able to suit up when the Browns face the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 23.

Retired federal Judge Sue Robinson imposed the punishment. The NFL and the players union jointly appointed her to oversee player discipline, and Watson’s case became the league’s first instance of punishment meted out by an independent disciplinary officer instead of Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The league sought an indefinite suspension that would have required Watson to be sidelined for at least a full season before he could ask for reinstatement, as well as a $5 million fine. The union said Watson shouldn’t be disciplined.

The decision to impose any penalty at all on Watson means Robinson concluded that the 26-year-old superstar quarterback had indeed violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Then she had to consider the nature of the transgression. Watson’s accusers were massage therapists who said he committed a range of lewd actions — including exposing himself and sexual assault — during therapy appointments in 2020 and 2021. He settled almost all of the lawsuits they filed against him.

Grand juries in two Texas counties declined to indict Watson. However, the NFL does not need an indictment or conviction to rule that a player or coach has violated the league’s conduct policy. Its definition of prohibited conduct includes behavior that is “illegal, violent, dangerous or irresponsible.” That kind of behavior “puts innocent victims at risk, damages the reputation of others in the game, and undercuts public respect and support for the NFL.”

It’s clear that Watson’s behavior amounts to a gross violation of that policy. His actions weren’t some sort of a singular lapse in judgment — at least two dozen women lined up to accuse him. Far from giving Watson’s victims a sense of justice, Robinson’s ruling belittles what happened to them. It amounts to lenience, and Watson has done nothing to show he deserves lenience. In fact, he still refuses to admit he did anything wrong.

The decision also doesn’t do much good for the NFL’s reputation, though the league’s pursuit of at least a yearlong suspension was a refreshing surprise. The league has amassed a history of downplaying bad behavior, especially when it comes to the treatment of women. Earlier this year, attorneys general in six states warned the NFL that they would begin investigating the league if it didn’t do more to address allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities, The New York Times reported.

The winners in Robinson’s ruling are the Browns and Watson.

The team can weather Watson’s absence for six games and still make a legitimate Super Bowl run upon his return. Watson’s quarterbacking is that good. And Watson doesn’t stand to lose too much financially. The Browns signed him to a five-year, $230 million guaranteed contract. Anticipating the likelihood of a multi-game suspension, the team structured the deal so that much of the $46 million he was supposed to get for the 2022 season was shunted into a signing bonus, which means he will only lose a chunk of his $1 million base salary. It’s safe to say the former Houston Texans star won’t be feeling much financial hurt.

That’s hardly an outcome that should make either the NFL or its fans feel good about the game. But the case isn’t over.

The NFL is appealing the ruling. Ideally, an appeal will essentially put the case back in Goodell’s hands, and give him or someone he designates the chance to impose a penalty that best reflects the gravity of Watson’s actions — a suspension that sidelines him for a year.

Doing so would send a message to players, and to fans and non-fans alike, that the league’s conduct policy wasn’t created merely to put up the veneer of treating others with respect and dignity. It’s genuine, non-negotiable and equipped with stiff consequences — particularly for its worst violators.

—The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

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