Deshaun Watson moving forward heading into his first full season since his suspension

Updated Aug. 4, 2023 5:12 p.m. ET

CANTON, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson received a warm greeting from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, embraced Aaron Rodgers and was all smiles at the Hall of Fame game.

One year after Goodell and the NFL vigorously tried to suspend the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback a minimum of one season for alleged sexual misconduct before settling on 11 games, Watson is moving forward. He says he’s a changed person. Coaches and teammates have praised his leadership, work ethic and attitude. Media see a noticeable difference in his demeanor.

All that’s been missing is obvious contrition.

Watson didn’t show any when he spoke candidly at the start of training camp about off-field issues that caused him to sit out the 2021 season and 11 games last year after he was traded to Cleveland. He also was fined $5 million and had to enter a counseling program because he was accused of sexual assault and harassment during massage sessions by two dozen women.

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Watson shared how he spoke to the team about his tough upbringing living in public housing, watching his mom battle cancer and not having a father figure. But then he blamed the media for “directing and narrating something else” and didn't take ownership of actions that the league’s disciplinary officer called “predatory.”

“I’ve done this work a really long time and I’m not all about immediate retribution and crash and burn people, but I am about holding them accountable and giving them an opportunity to change the way they interact with people, to change the way they treat people,” Rita Smith, a senior adviser to the NFL hired in 2014 to help shape the league’s policy on domestic abuse and sexual assault, told the AP on Friday.

“I am in that camp with Deshaun Watson. I want him to be better. But the amount of harm that he caused other people is something he needs to step up to, acknowledge, and then to say this is not behavior that I will engage in ever again. ... I don’t want him to be ostracized. But I do think that he needs to come fully to the place where he can say something I did was inappropriate.”

Watson says he didn’t take the league-mandated therapy sessions lightly.

“I really cherish those moments and I want to learn,” he said.

Perhaps Watson has expressed remorse privately during counseling. But he hasn’t stated it publicly.

Before Thursday night’s game — a 21-16 victory for Cleveland in the NFL preseason opener — Jets fans shouted derogatory comments at Browns fans wearing Watson’s No. 4 jersey. Two men stood outside one entrance to Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium selling brown-and-orange T-shirts with vulgar references to Watson, women and massage therapists.

“The public will know he’s taking responsibility if he says that out loud to the rest of us,” Smith said. “My preference would be: ‘I engaged in behaviors that hurt people and I will not do that again.’ If he would just say that, I think a whole lot of us could move on and not be concerned about future interactions that he may have."

There’s no doubt Watson has made a positive impression on teammates and an organization that mortgaged its future to get him.

“I was very impressed on how he handled everything,” Titans offensive lineman Chris Hubbard, who played in Cleveland last season, said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “He approached it as a person that didn’t seem like what the media portrayed. He didn’t show it at all. He’s very humble, very nice.”

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski raves about the way Watson works hard on the field and the football classroom.

“I think that’s what his teammates love about him, is that they know how committed he is to the team,” Stefanski said.

Watson is trying to make the most of his second chance. The NFL has seemingly embraced him after fighting for a severe punishment last year.

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