It happened to me.
Over a decade ago, when I was working in another industry, it happened to me. In a crowded room, an older man came up behind me, said hello, and as I turned around in those close quarters, he snatched my hand and placed it on his crotch. It wasn't the first time something like that had happened to me (I'd had my behind pinched more than once), and it wouldn't be the last, but at that moment I froze. I didn't tell anyone at work about it, because there was no evidence it happened, and I was afraid of being called a liar and a troublemaker who was just trying to get attention.
Every single woman I know has a story like that. On the subway, at a concert, in an elevator, with a customer, at school, in an empty office at work, it has happened to us everywhere and anywhere. Many of us don't raise our voices for the very reason I didn't all those years ago: We're afraid we won't be taken seriously.
On Monday, we all got confirmation that we were right. Judge Sue L. Robinson ruled that Deshaun Watson should serve only a six-game suspension after 24 women (though the NFL presented the case of four) credibly accused him of sexual misconduct and assault, the same kind of unwanted touching and advances so many women stay silent about.
Hearing about the light punishment was awful, but it paled in comparison to reading Robinson's justification for her ruling. In a 16-page decision, Robinson came to the conclusion that while Watson's behavior was "egregious," six games was already the most that any player had ever been suspended for what she called "non-violent sexual assault."
She accused the NFL of trying to put violent sexual assault and "non-violent sexual assault" on the same level, essentially saying that the "non-violent sexual assault" of multiple women was not as bad as other kinds of sexual assault. Robinson also took into account Watson's status as a "first-time offender," and determined that the NFL wants to punish him severely without precedent and without warning other players of a "dramatic shift in its culture" — that shift presumably being that the "non-violent sexual assault" of numerous women deserves serious punishment.
Robinson, a retired judge who served on the bench for many years, based her ruling partially on the precedents the NFL had set, but also partially on her definition of "non-violent sexual assault."
But there is more than one kind of violence, and it's not limited to what is visible.
For several years after the incidents at work, I felt nervous going into crowds. I had trouble doing parts of my job that put me in situations similar to my assault experience. I never shared that with anyone — not even my husband, who found out about my history with assault when I told him I was writing this article. Leaving that old job and coming to work at Yahoo Sports allowed me to completely move on, but I know I'm lucky. Not everyone has that luxury, and not every situation can be gotten over in that way — or in any way.
Going through any kind of sexual assault or misconduct can leave a mark that is not easily erased. It's imprinted on your soul and your brain, and the memories can surface at any time. Those feelings of violation, embarrassment, powerlessness and hurt can come flooding back, leaving you feeling isolated or trapped or even dirty. It can affect your everyday life, from the moment you wake up to the moment you shut your eyes to sleep, and then your dreams could contain even more horrors.
I can speak for only myself, and not the millions of women who have also been forced into an unwanted sexual situation. But hearing unwanted sexual touching called "non-violent sexual assault" that is not serious enough to warrant a significant punishment released the floodgates of memories and feelings I thought I'd gotten over long ago.
"No one will believe me."
"No one will care because I wasn't physically hurt."
"I'll be called a liar and a troublemaker, and saying something will probably amount to nothing."
It feels silly to be angry at an NFL suspension. It's almost impossible to think of one that hasn't been a slap in the face in one way or another. But this one doesn't feel the same, at least to me, primarily because I dared to hope this time it would be different. So many women bravely came forward to share their story, willing to weather the bile and insults hurled at them for daring to stand up for themselves. So many women came forward that they couldn't be ignored, and that gave me hope that a rich and powerful man who was allegedly enabled by his employers, would be punished.
The men who groped me or forced me to touch them never had to pay for what they did to me. They never had to reckon with it and accept the possibility that their behavior might cost them. The same is true of many of the women out there who have been groped, assaulted and propositioned without their consent.
Watson is paying for what he did, but suspending him six games for "non-violent sexual assault" feels more like an insult than any kind of serious discipline. He's being suspended roughly one quarter of a football game for each of his accusers. Due to the structure of his contract, he will lose around $333,000. He will still receive $230 million over five years, the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history. He is being disciplined, but not in a way that will seriously hurt him. Barring injury, he'll still start more than half of the Browns' games this season.
The ball is now in the NFL's court. Commissioner Roger Goodell has just a few days to decide if he wants to appeal the disciplinary recommendation or let it stand. He will have to come to terms with the fact that the NFL's reactionary and inconsistent disciplinary measures are partially to blame for this situation. It's possible he could impose his own punishment and overrule the judge, a decision that carries a lot of consequence.
If he does, it will still feel meaningless to me. The voices of 24 women were not enough to make a real difference. In the end, they were still ignored, and there's nothing anyone can do to change that.