Mike Florio on Deshaun Watson and covering NFL controversies

Mike Florio, 57, is the creator and co-owner of ProFootballTalk, one of the nation’s leading NFL news platforms, an affiliate of NBC Sports. Florio co-hosts “Pro Football Talk Live” and appears weekly on NBC’s “Football Night in America.” He is the author of “Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (and Doesn’t).” Florio lives with his family in West Virginia.

The ruling for Deshaun Watson came in — 11 game suspension, $5 million fine. You’ve been following this closely. Were you surprised by the ruling?

I expected that the NFL would suspend him for at least a calendar year and take whatever consequences came from that. And then I started hearing that there was a possibility of a settlement. My guess is the NFL Players Association was dug in at 10 games and the NFL wanted 12, and you obviously split the difference to 11 and Deshaun Watson pays a little bit more than he wanted to get back on the field sooner. I am surprised it happened because I felt like all the momentum was pointing toward the NFL taking full advantage of the power that it has, once it got the ruling from [appointed disciplinary officer] Sue L. Robinson finding that he had violated the personal conduct policy in three different ways, with four different women, nonviolent sexual assault, egregious behavior, predatory conduct, and then Commissioner [Roger Goodell] spoke about it at a league meeting. I thought: That’s it, game over. We’re not going to see Deshaun Watson at all in 2022.

The thing that shocked me yesterday: his public comments where he said, “I stand on my innocence.” And it reminded me of someone who agrees to a guilty plea and then, right after the ink dries, says, “I didn’t do anything.”

Deshaun Watson accused of sexual misconduct in lawsuits stemming from massage sessions; QB issues denial

There was a huge response to his response.

The NFL gets criticized from time to time for being too concerned about optics when it comes to matters like this, but the entire personal conduct policy is an exercise in optics. Most employers don’t care, shouldn’t care, get into legal problems if they try to care, about trouble that an employee gets into away from work, off-duty, away from premises, not involving the business in any way, shape or form. Ninety-nine point nine percent of American employers say that if you can show up for work, it’s not our business. And when they try to make it their business, they get themselves in trouble. But the league and the union have agreed that basically an NFL player is on the clock 24 hours a day, wherever he is in the world. And if you get in trouble, you are subject to punishment under the personal conduct policy, so that’s all an exercise in optics.

I say this as a lifelong fan: There is a steady stream of scandalous stories around the NFL. Having said that, it never loses its grip on the American viewing public. To what do you attribute the popularity of this sport?

There was an issue involving one of the teams, years ago — I can’t remember the specific context — but I’ll never forget the response I got from the league. When I asked the question about what if this, what if that, the response was: We are the ultimate reality show. That’s the mind-set that they’ve embraced. Is it true that there is no such thing as bad publicity? I think at a certain point it does become a little problematic, but where the NFL benefits, especially in season, any controversy that pops up, there is always a bright, shiny object in the form of another game that gets everyone’s attention off whatever it may be. You’ve got all the games on Sunday, then you’ve got Monday, and if anyone’s upset about something that happened on Monday night, you’ve got Thursday for everybody to forget and move on. So it’s much easier for them to deal with it in season because people just have an insatiable appetite for the product. And the product is what causes people to either embrace and enjoy the drama or when necessary, hold their nose and move on.

So reporting for you isn’t just about what happens on the field. As a sports journalist, what obligation do you feel in reporting what’s on the edges?

As a fan who was 7 years old when the “Immaculate Reception” [the Pittsburgh Steelers’ legendary game-winning reception in 1972 AFC divisional playoff game.] happened, and a room full of adults exploded, I realized at that point, this is a pretty big deal. This NFL is something I should pay attention to. I’ve always been guided by what interested me as a fan, and now it’s 50 years and counting, and there are stories that stray beyond the realm of what happens on the field. I remember when I got into this business, 20 years ago, I felt horribly inadequate because I had no journalism experience, but I practiced law. I got to a point a few years in where I thought I’d feel a lot more inadequate covering this sport if I didn’t have the law degree because so many times there is overlap. We try to take those issues and explain them to people in the most understandable way possible, and that’s one of the reasons I think we’ve developed a niche and held it through years of competition. We try to bring that different option to the table everywhere we can.

Your law degree seems the perfect foundation for explaining contracts and the criminal investigations.

One of the first days of law school in 1988, the professor explained that the most important thing he can give us is a crap filter. You develop a skill set, through practicing law, through studying people. I love watching press conferences. It’s one thing to see what someone said. It’s another thing to see them say it and the little tells that they have. I love that part of it. We are stubbornly committed to exposing the BS, the untruths wherever they may be, because they are definitely everywhere in the NFL. And it makes people upset. It makes fans upset. It makes the league upset, but we’ve tried to stubbornly be that in order just to make a difference. To always be truthful and honest with the audience, that’s one thing that is always the guiding light.

You are part of this ecosystem, but you have managed to keep a critical eye on what is going on and kind of be a truth teller.

So how do you do it? How do the NFL insiders view you?

In this business, I don’t care if a certain number of people don’t like me. I didn’t do it to make friends. I didn’t do it to score popularity. I did it because I love football. Now, some people don’t like the way I do it. Some people don’t like that I share some candid beliefs that they disagree with, and I’ve been fortunate that during our 13-year affiliation with NBC they’ve been very supportive any time the NFL has an issue with me. I respect the fact that they have always had my back. You need that if you are going to balance this out where you’ve got a major platform but you still have an independent approach. ’Cause it’s hard to have an independent approach if you’re on a major platform. There is a certain amount of your soul that you have to slice off and sell to keep the overlords happy. We’ve been able to strike that balance, and I’m fortunate for it. Because it’s not just stubbornness on my part; you need to have a partner that is willing to respect what you do, support what you do, and take the arrows from time to time with the NFL.

You frequently talk about how [NFL players] should maximize the small window of opportunity for earning money and be in charge of their own destinies.

What happened for me was, when you grow up and you follow the NFL, players are larger than life. The players are superhuman. And then as you get older, you realize one day you are the same age as the players. Then you realize the players are younger than me. Then you realize there aren’t many players who are older than me. What really did it for me was when my son got to the age of college and adulthood. You understand him and his issues and the challenges of being a young adult in today’s world. It made me more sensitive to what these guys go through. They are every bit as vulnerable and inexperienced and confused and intimidated as my own son. That’s what I try to do — to get people to view these players as son, cousin, brother, nephew, friend. Someone you know. Someone you care about. Someone who, when they have surgery, it’s not minor surgery, it’s major surgery. Every surgery is major surgery. It’s only minor surgery when it’s not performed on you or someone you love.

So that’s the voice that I’ve kind of evolved to. I don’t know that it ever would have happened without having a child who evolved through the same steps as I did. But it’s something that I feel passionate about, and it upset some people. People don’t like to have their enjoyment of the sport disrupted by any of the broader moral wrestling matches. There is a conflict with the team. Why do you get mad at the player? The player’s got one shot to get enough money to take care of him and his family. The owners are already taken care of, and they’re going to be doing this over and over again.

When it comes down to the two, the public will line up behind the owners.

Well, I think that from the perspective of the people who don’t have a lot of money, there is very little difference from billionaires and millionaires — and there is huge difference from millionaires and billionaires! And a lot of the players aren’t even millionaires. A lot of the players are making — and I know to say only $600,000, but in comparison to Tom Brady or some of the star players, it’s peanuts in comparison to what the owners have. It’s peanut sweepings, as Homer Simpson would say. There is a bit Jerry Seinfeld [has] done over the years, where when you are a sports fan, you’re just rooting for the laundry. You are not rooting for the individuals wearing them, and if the guy leaves and is wearing different laundry, you hate him, and if he’s wearing your laundry you love him. The common link between the fan and the owner is they are identified with supporting that laundry. The players are going to come and go.

Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.

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