After the Browns Signed Deshaun Watson, ‘a Lot of Emotions’
Editors’ note: This story contains accounts of sexual assault. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault and is seeking help, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or at https://www.rainn.org
The protest was supposed to kick off at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, not unlike most Browns home games. And while its organizer didn’t expect anything close to a full stadium’s worth of supporters outside the team’s practice facility in Berea, Ohio, the 17,000 views on his Reddit planning thread had left him hopeful about the turnout as he steered onto Lou Groza Boulevard that afternoon wearing a Browns jersey and toting a handwritten poster that read NO WATSON IN CLEVELAND.
For Raymond Braun, decades of commitment had led to this expression of disgust. A Browns fan from birth, he was raised on stories about his late grandfather drinking beer with Otto Graham and Lou the Toe, and about his dad celebrating the team’s last championship, in 1964. Now 44, Raymond typically treks in from Cleveland Heights for the live experience once or twice each season, though he prefers to host his own watch parties. “I’d never miss a game,” says Braun, a network engineer who counts among his most prized possessions a ’60s-era Browns-orange knit hat that has his grandad’s name and address sewn onto the interior.
Then, on March 18, the Browns sent a haul of draft picks to the Texans in exchange for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who at the time faced (and still faces) 22 civil lawsuits filed by massage therapists, each accusing him of sexual misconduct. After news broke of a corresponding contract extension that guarantees Watson an NFL-record $230 million, Braun scrolled through social media and found “so many people” defending the move by citing two different Texas grand juries that had declined to indict the 25-year-old on criminal charges. (In his introductory press conference, Watson said he had “never done these things people are alleging” and did not plan to seek counseling because “I don’t have a problem.”) But Braun also read numerous articles detailing the allegations against Watson, including a Sports Illustrated report about one woman, not among those suing, who recalled a similarly problematic encounter with the QB. Braun states, “It’s one thing when one person accuses.” Braun says that he has almost as many accusers as there are years on this planet. At that point, I was very against [the trade].”
Braun was looking for a way to vocalize this frustration when he came across a Reddit post–“Call to arms for Browns fans”–that proposed staging a demonstration against the trade. And so he leapt to help, starting his own thread, alerting Berea city officials about a gathering and spreading the word in his social circles. The plan: “Let’s do everything we can to stop this,” Braun remembers thinking, “or at least yell as loud as we can until they can’t avoid us.”
What only a select few people in his life knew at the time, though, was the deeply personal motive he had for speaking out in the first place. Says Braun: “I am a rape survivor.”
The incident occurred when Braun was 36, he says. Braun says he doesn’t want to go into details but adds that this wasn’t his first traumatic sexual encounter. At 17, Braun recalls, he fled an attempted rape by jumping out of a car, vaulting over a fence and sprinting home. In his 20s, he was attacked by an ex-boyfriend. That time he defended himself long enough to dial 911 before his ex ripped the phone out of the wall. Braun states, “You could break your leg and it’s going heal.” These assaults “not the kind that heals.” It doesn’t get any easier. It doesn’t get better.”
Years later, as Braun processed the accusations against the new face of his favorite franchise, he was “triggered right away.” Initially he found himself outraged at Browns management, which had cited “extensive” research into Watson’s character before the trade. Braun asks, “What are they sending them as a message?” Braun asks. He could still be suspended. )
Disappointment followed, then, when Braun pulled up to the Browns’ practice facility to find just a handful of police and journalists–and zero marchers. He remained for an hour, climbing twice from his car to take a short, quiet walk along the fence surrounding the complex. And he ultimately drove home confident that his efforts were not in vain, having spoken outside to an Akron Beacon Journal reporter for an article about fed-up fans. “Whether a thousand people showed up or not,” Braun says, “the Browns knew there was a protest.”
As time passed, Braun would feel empowered, too, to make himself heard in another way. Braun would tell his entire story, not in protest, but to shine light on all survivors of sexual assault in Browns Nation and beyond.
To let them know: They are not alone.
Raymond Braun is not alone.
In the two weeks following Watson’s acquisition, the U.S.’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization, RAINN, saw a 23% increase in calls to its sexual assault hotline, according to president and founder Scott Berkowitz. Berkowitz says that not everyone has heard of the story [when they call],”. “But it’s clear that it’s stirred up a lot of emotions and a lot of anger.”
Such an “immediate effect on hotline usage,” Berkowitz continues, aligns with the response RAINN saw to other prominent cases involving public figures accused of sexual assault. He cites Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing as an example. “In general, half of the people call soon after [being assaulted].” Berkowitz states. “People who are calling days or weeks or years later–those are the kinds that we typically see an uptick in related to news stories.”
Why? Berkowitz says trauma isn’t something that disappears. It can be difficult for people to recall past events that were related to their own assaults. Even for those who have not been raped in the past, it can still be very distressing to see or read [about]. They’re looking for someone who doesn’t blame them, but who is a friendly voice–who can help figure out how to keep going.”
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That response has been even starker at the local level, where the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center received 106 calls to its own hotline on the Saturday and Sunday after the Watson trade, a 152% increase from a typical weekend. This included 69 contacts on the day of Braun’s protest, a 138% increase from its average daily total in 2022. Even three weeks later, calls were still nearly 30% higher than they were before the trade. Says Sarah Trimble, the center’s chief external affairs officer: “It was very triggering to survivors in our community.”
As with RAINN, some CRCC callers asked about the nonprofit’s array of free programs for survivors, such as trauma-informed counseling and help navigating the judicial system. Trimble states that in both cases, people “just needed to speak” and that they were mostly “just needing to talk”. “They felt like they’re not a priority, and winning football games matters more than the people in our community who have experienced sexual assault.”
People like Marla Ridenour.
A Beacon Journal sportswriter who has covered the Browns for various Ohio outlets as far back as the 1980s, Ridenour identified herself as a rape survivor in a March 26 column headlined BROWNS’ DESHAUN WATSON TRADE TRIGGERS PAST FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS. I AM ONE OF THEM. Ridenour, 67, laid out how her experience, which occurred in the mid ’70s, when she was in college, still affected her nearly five decades later. She wrote that she cried herself to sleep when she heard that Watson and the Browns were flying to Houston. “Like so many women who are victims of sex crimes, I know what it’s like not to be believed.”
Ridenour recalls wrestling for “two or three days” over whether she would share that story with readers. She says, “I didn’t know if it would be nerve-racking.” But she forged ahead, seeking “catharsis after keeping a 47-year-old secret.” And indeed she felt freed when she sat down to type; the words poured right out of her. She didn’t expect the outpouring support that would follow. “The response has certainly convinced me that I did the right thing.”
More than 200 related emails currently populate Ridenour’s inbox–“some are from victims, some are from Browns fans, some are both,” she says. “A lot of them have come forward to tell me all about what happened.” Some of these are so heart-wrenching.” Others have written letters to Ridenour, one about a family member who had taken their life following an assault.
She estimates that 60% of the people who reach out “know someone, or had it happen to them. The other 40% are people thanking me for sharing this.”
Ridenour is hopeful that her column will help chip away at a culture of silence. She says, “Every day that passes, I get more email messages or tweets.” “It’s kind of staggering how pervasive this is, and how so many people carry this with them and don’t talk about it.” She recounts how a high school journalism teacher in North Carolina reached out to say that he was planning to assign his students to read her column, and how another person wrote about sitting down with their teenager “to talk about these kinds of things.”
“I didn’t feel like I could tell my parents [at the time of the assault],” says Ridenour. “I do feel like an unintended [consequence of the column] might be to open up the conversation.”
Braun, too, was initially torn about the idea of speaking out as a survivor, especially as a white man. He says, “I always check my privilege and know when I should be listening and not speaking.” He remembers thinking: “This is a believe women thing.” But ultimately he was convinced to use his voice by one of the few people in his life who knew his story.
In 2017, Alisa Alfaro was sexually assaulted by a Cleveland Heights neighbor who entered her house while she was sleeping, using a key she’d given him to walk her dogs. The man was eventually sentenced to 16 years in prison, but not before Alfaro suffered the added humiliation of what she describes as skepticism when she reported the incident to authorities who didn’t believe her.
Alfaro, 53, considers herself a casual “hometown fan,” far from a Cleveland diehard. She has closely observed how the Watson trade is received by her more passionate friends. But that doesn’t mean they found him innocent.” And women, Alfaro says, “are very concerned about the image that [this situation] is giving the Browns.”
Beyond football and fandom, Alfaro is more concerned with how the arrival of Watson reinforces existing power structures around sexual assault. She says, “All of the doubts, the victim-blaming. It’s why we don’t report.” It’s why [survivors] cannot come forward and be taken seriously. Those of us who can, must.”
That, in essence, is what she told Braun when he expressed reservations about coming forward. “She reminded me that this is not just about believing 22 women; it’s about believing everyone,” says Braun. “As an LGBT male … I realized they need a voice as well.”
The impact isn’t limited to survivors themselves, though. Trimble says, “No experience can compare to that of someone who has experienced rape and sexual abuse.” [But] These headlines can traumatize secondary survivors, such as parents, partners, and other people within the blast radius. And we’ve certainly seen that in the community.”
LaShawn Terrell is one of those community members. A Cleveland sports fan for all of her 49 years, she counts several sexual assault survivors as close friends. When she heard about Watson being pursued by the Browns, she immediately thought of the women who had accused him. Terrell said, “I was numb.” Terrell says, “I didn’t know how I felt.” Your heart bleeds.”
So Terrell tweeted to her 1,200-odd followers to “consider supporting the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center with volunteerism and donations,” and she shared a screenshot of her own financial gift. Two days later–just before the Watson trade–she received an email from the organization, thanking her for 25 additional donations that had followed her tweet. That was only the beginning.
Over the next month the CRCC received contributions from 2,300-plus donors, totaling close to $125,000, an unprecedented flood for the 48-year-old organization. “The #MeToo movement in 2017, that was in the headlines for weeks,” says Trimble. “And while we experienced a substantial increase in calls to our hotline, it did not manifest in the same way that it did here.”
About a third of those 2,300 donations were made for exactly $22, a show of support for the 22 women suing Watson. A third of donors specifically cited Watson and/or the Browns as their motivation to give. Approximately fifty people made contributions in memory of Baker Mayfield (the quarterback Watson is replacing). Braun gave $50 twice–once in co-owner Dee Haslam’s name. Carly Teller, the wife of All-Pro Browns guard Wyatt Teller, tweeted a screenshot of her donation from her then-public account, writing to Terrell, “Thank you for raising awareness!”
Others expressed their displeasure over the move by taking aim at the team that made it. NFL Network podcaster Marc Sessler and sportswriter Joe Posnanski each publicly renounced their Browns fandom. Andrea Thome, the wife of baseball Hall of Famer Jim Thome, who played for 13 years in Cleveland, tweeted that after “40 years as a fan” she had canceled her family’s four season tickets. She wrote that “This is my line of sight,” and later added that she had diverted the money to support victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. And Michael Brennan, the mayor of University Heights, 20 minutes east of FirstEnergy Stadium, posted on Facebook about how he had boxed up decades’ worth of jackets, jerseys, hats, pennants, mini helmets and footballs, and banished all of his memorabilia to the basement.
“I watched a lot of bad football for a lot of years and stuck with this team, but I feel like the Deshaun Watson trade is a bridge too far,” says Brennan, who says he’ll shift allegiances to either the Bengals or the Bills. “Sports are supposed be an escape. When this is right in front of you, how can you enjoy it?”
Raymond Braun senses his enthusiasm waning, too. He would normally be reading draft and OTAs content around this time of the year. But, Raymond Braun notices that his enthusiasm is waning. He’s not quite ready to put away his granddad’s knit hat and he doesn’t plan on changing teams. He’s not sure how many Browns games this season he can stomach if Watson is in the center.
“I just don’t know how I’m going to feel,” Braun says with a sigh.
Remember: It gets easier, not better.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.