Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has long been a sports hero in Gainesville, and like many other such heroes, he has been honored with a street that bears his name.
In Feb. 2017, the city renamed the 180-foot road that leads into the Gainesville High campus from Pearl Nix Parkway — Touchdown Way became Deshaun Watson Way.
But in light of the news earlier this week that Watson settled 20 of 24 lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassement, should the street be renamed?
That decision ultimately rests with the City Council, though a couple of members said they will defer to the school system. Members of the council and school board said the question hadn’t even crossed their minds.
Gainesville Mayor Sam Couvilon said the council hadn’t discussed the matter and probably won’t add it to the next meeting agenda, but he did share his thoughts about the allegations against Watson.
“My gut instinct tells me where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said. “My common sense tells me that if there’s 24 people saying something, then something happened. But the flip side of that is a grand jury did look at it and they opted not to press charges.”
Two council members said they won’t change the sign unless the school board asks them to do so.
“My concern is jumping in front of the board of education because they made a request and we complied,” said council member Barbara Brooks of the 2017 decision to rename the road. “It’s our street, but it’s their campus and so as far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't be willing to make any changes unless it comes through the board of education.”
Likewise, council member and former mayor Danny Dunagan said, “I’m probably going to wait and see what the school system wants to do.”
It was the school board’s treasurer, Sammy Smith, who proposed naming the road after Watson in 2017 on behalf of his public relations firm Rainmaker & Associates.
“The outrageous accusations have not been proven,” Smith said. “And it would be presumptuous for any person to suggest that the street be renamed at this point.”
Heather Ramsey, the only woman on the school board, shared her thoughts.
“Obviously as a woman, it’s important that we listen to women that are courageous enough to bring forward claims and that we certainly investigate those seriously,” Ramsey said. “But we have a judicial process in place, so we certainly wouldn't want to make decisions for our city before we have all of that information.”
“I think he’s guilty of bad judgment, I don't know if he’s guilty of any crime,” said Andy Stewart, chair of the school board.
“I really don’t have enough information to make a judgment call,” said school board member Willie Mitchell.
In an informal Facebook poll by The Times with 65 votes, the majority of people (66%) said “No,” the street should not be renamed, while the rest (34%) said “Yes,” it should.
Among those who say no is Leslie Frierson, Watson’s fourth-grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy and now principal at the school.
“I don’t have an opinion about anything related to the legal issues, but I do have an opinion about Deshaun, and I know that he has a good heart,” Frierson said. “What he has meant to the Gainesville community — I mean, it’s significant and it’s legendary. He really changed the face of high school athletics for a lot of our kids.”
Brittny Peters, who was also against the name change, did have something to say on Watson’s legal issues. “I just feel that since no criminal charges ever stood he should be presumed innocent,” she said.
In March, two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints stemming from the allegations. That same month, he signed a five-year contract with the Browns for $230 million, the most guaranteed money in NFL history.
Watson is far and away the biggest sports star to come out of Gainesville.
Other names include Tommy Aaron, who won the Masters in 1973, and Micah Owings, who pitched in Major League Baseball. But even mentioning them in the same breath as Watson is enough to elicit cries of blasphemy.
As Frierson put it, “He’s just a league of his own.”
On Tuesday, Watson reached an agreement to settle 20 of the 24 civil lawsuits that had been filed by women who accused him of sexual assault and harassment. Watson has been accused by massage therapists of harassing, assaulting or touching them during appointments when he was playing for the Houston Texans.
Tony Buzbee, lawyer for the 24 women, said the terms of the settlements are “confidential” and that his legal team “won’t comment further on the settlements or those cases.”
The settlement comes after The New York Times reported earlier this month that “Watson engaged in more questionable behavior than previously known,” according to a review of legal records.
Watson booked massage appointments with at least 66 different women in a 17-month period from October 2019 to March 2021, according to the report, and also gave some of the women a nondisclosure agreement.
That is why some say the street should be renamed.
“I just do not feel that someone with 24 sexual allegations against him is someone who should represent a major school system in our region,” said city resident Ashley Pratt.
“Our tax dollars to the school system, living inside Gainesville City limits, should not support any form of sexual misconduct and with there being settlements made, I feel that is enough to support a street name change.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.