The man who owns Shines insists he doesn’t have an opinion about Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Wearing a navy blue smock smudged with varying hues of shoe polish, Earl Nash is eating Cheetos one by one from a snack-sized bag, sliding them under his face shield as Jeopardy! blares in the background.
Nash works inside an artificial labyrinth surrounded by an assortment of leather and suede projects in various stages of disrepair. He’s been shining shoes in Houston’s 5th Ward for more than 30 years.
“I’m not a sportsman, I’m a businessman,” said Nash, who earns as much as $20 for a shine.
Then, of course, he proceeds to ramble for the next 10 minutes about Watson, who is facing 21 civil lawsuits that accuse the quarterback of a range of actions during massage appointments over the past year, from refusing to cover his genitals to forced oral sex.
“This player, Deshaun Watson, has clearly given a positive image until this came up,” Nash said. “He’s donated money, he hasn’t been caught with no dope, he hasn’t been caught with no guns – and we thought he was the boy next door.
“Now the city is asking us to believe he’s now a flawed character, and we’re saying he’s been a good ballplayer and good citizen.”
Watson’s future in Houston and the NFL is the hottest topic in sports. The star quarterback had been seeking a trade from the franchise just a year after signing a $156 million contract. But now, no team is going to trade for him with the current ambiguity surrounding his legal situation.
The situation has left Watson and the Texans in limbo.
It has also enveloped the city in a malaise that even the University of Houston’s first trip to the Final Four since 1984 and Opening Day for the Astros can’t snap.
It doesn’t matter if the conversations are taking place in the 3rd Ward near Texas Southern and the University of Houston; River Oaks, where many of the city’s power brokers live in their tree-lined mansions; or East Downtown, where craft beer breweries pop up like spring flowers.
Even those who swear they don’t have an opinion about the situation can’t stop talking about it.
‘IT’S A BAD LOOK FOR THE CITY’
Ken McMillon took a break from the grilled salmon and red wine he was enjoying at On the Kirb, an organic eatery and sports bar near Houston’s Uptown district, to find just the right words regarding Watson’s situation.
“Disappointment,” said McMillon after pausing for eight seconds. “I don’t understand it. Why would a young man with a bright future and so much talent put himself in that position? Even if he gets out of it, his reputation will be tarnished. It will certainly hurt him in terms of endorsements.”
Houston is the largest city in Texas, a state where kids are given footballs while they’re still in the crib and high school stadiums can cost more than $60 million.
The bluebonnet is the state flower and football is clearly the state sport.
Watson, the 12th player taken in the 2017 draft after leading Clemson to a national championship, starred on an awful team last year. He led the league in passing yards (4,823) with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Even though the team struggled, the city still had Watson.
Then he asked for a trade in January in part because he believes the club reneged on its offer to include him in the process for hiring a general manager. He reportedly found out the club hired general manager Nick Caserio on Twitter.
And now the recent accusations against Watson – who has denied the lawsuits’ allegations, which have not named any of the women, and has not been charged criminally – have left the fan base and the city in a funk.
“It’s a bad look for the city – a real bad look for the city,” Mario Flores said while drinking a beer at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Texas’ oldest brewery. “I have three little girls, so I’m not happy about it.
“If he’s guilty, that’s obviously not the person we want representing us in the city.”
The Watson scandal dominates the local sports talk radio scene where every host has a hot sports opinion on Watson, the Texans and attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents Watson’s accusers, because it generates good ratings.
It’s the one topic folks want to hear about every day. It’s no different for the local TV affiliates or the Houston Chronicle. There’s nothing like a good scandal to increase business in the world of media.
“I’m not a Texans fan, but I’m surrounded by them,” said Avery Thompson, who lives in North Houston. “Some feel like he deserved it because they feel like he turned his back on the city that loved him, cheered for him, brought him in and gave him his money, and now he wants to leave.
“The team got a Black coach, they’re trying to make him happy, and now he’s s—ting on the team.”
There’s also a segment of the fan base that figured this was just another case of an entitled athlete run amok.
“My initial thought was here we go again,” said Sheila Sapp, who lives in Cypress, Texas. “Yet another privileged athlete who cannot fathom a woman not accepting his advances. … On the other hand, we have seen both endings of this movie with similar allegations.”
The Watson scandal caught Houstonians off guard because there was nothing in his background to suggest they needed to be wary. We’re talking about a player who donated his first game check, nearly $27,000, to three NRG Stadium employees who had been affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Before the 2020 season, Watson partnered with Reliant Energy to donate about $175,000 worth of laptops and technology to underprivileged kids.
He’s devoted much of his four years in Houston to making the city better for needy kids and folks fighting to survive the hard knocks life occasionally delivers.
“Nobody is totally good or totally bad. I can’t really judge him. Everybody makes mistakes,” said Garland Levit, a lifelong Houston resident. “Are all those allegations true? No way, but if 20 or 30% of them are true that’s a problem.”
During a 72-hour stretch in Houston last weekend, few folks were rocking Texans ball caps, T-shirts or jerseys. The only jerseys a visitor saw during three hours at The Galleria, a mall that boasts luxury stores such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, were an Earl Campbell Houston Oilers throwback and a Dallas Cowboys Dez Bryant jersey.
Sports Treasures, a sports memorabilia store in the mall, had plenty of Watson jerseys in red, white and blue.
“We haven’t sold any in a long time,” the cashier said.
But there are still fans who support Watson.
Stephanie Lattimore, a Katy, Texas, resident who owns a cake decorating business, has communicated with Watson several times via Instagram and Snapchat. She said Watson sent her a nice message after she’d done a cake with his jersey number on it.
“It don’t take a lot to get 19 people to lie on you,” she said. “Truthfully, honestly, it doesn’t. Now, I’m thinking a lot of people are starting to believe it, but I don’t. Not one bit.”
‘THIS COMES OUT AFTER THAT MAN ASKED FOR A TRADE’
Raymond Peterson, one of several barbers who have booths at J&O Barber Studio in the 5th Ward, was standing outside solving all of the world’s problems with a blunt-smoking customer when a visitor broached the topic of Deshaun Watson.
“It’s all bulls—,” Peterson said. “All of a sudden this comes out after that man asked for a trade. He doesn’t even carry himself like that.”
When you step inside Jarvis Oaks’ booth at the barber studio, Delvin Ross is getting a cut, while fellow customer Albert Duvall motions for a visitor to join him on a sofa so they can have a nuanced conversation about Watson.
“They went civil,” said Ross, “They saw gold.”
They’re suspicious of Buzbee’s motives because the police have not been involved.
In an Instagram post this week, Buzbee explained his decision not to give the police potential evidence regarding his clients’ claims of sexual assault.
“When I ran for Houston mayor against the current mayor, I called for the resignation of the former police chief,” Buzbee wrote in an Instagram post. “I was thus reluctant initially in these important cases to provide info to HPD, at least while Art Acevedo was the police chief — even though my brother-in-law is a long-term HPD officer.”
Duvall has a more sinister reason.
“Buzbee never gave a damn about those girls,” he said. “He’s trying to keep his name in the news. He wants a bigger profile. He wants to run for mayor again.”
To understand the anger in the Fifth Ward and Third Ward, you must understand its origin.
In 2017, Texans owner Bob McNair reportedly said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” during a meeting between NFL team owners and the NFL Players Association to discuss anthem protests. He later apologized.
In 2019, they witnessed the hotly contested mayoral race between Buzbee and incumbent Sylvester Turner that included TV ads attacking the mayor paid for by Buzbee’s campaign.
And last year, they saw Third Ward native George Floyd die on a Minneapolis street with police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
Chauvin is currently on trial for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
All of it has taken a toll on those who live in Houston’s poorest neighborhoods. To many, this is another example of a white man trying to take down a Black man.
Watson’s best hope, they believe, lies in his attorney Rusty Hardin, one of the country’s highest-profile defense attorneys.
Over the years, he’s helped athletes such as Warren Moon, Scottie Pippen and Roger Clemens earn favorable verdicts. Clemens, accused of perjury over alleged steroid use, was acquitted on all charges.
“Rusty Hardin is a bad motherf—er. He has a lot of juice in Houston,” Calvin Washington said as he waited for his haircut. “He’s not a man to be played with. He knows the game, he knows how the game goes and he knows how to win.”
‘I THINK HIS CAREER IS OVER IN HOUSTON’
It’s seemingly impossible to find any of Houston’s 2.3 million residents who think Watson will be the Texans’ starting quarterback when the season begins in September.
That’s just about the only aspect regarding this issue everyone in Houston seems to agree on.
“I feel like it must be true because that many suits have been filed,” said Kingwood resident Katie Sniderwin between bites of shrimp nachos at Truck Yard, a beer garden with an outdoor patio. “It’s sad because I think his career is over in Houston.”
Brett Sniderwin, her husband, said the number of cases bothers him too.
“It’s the pattern of behavior that’s disturbing to me. It’s not just one or two [cases],” he said. “I want to believe Deshaun isn’t that kind of guy regardless of whether he’s our quarterback or not.
“I liked him in college and I liked when he was here, but I think he’s played his last down for the Houston Texans.”
If he’s traded, the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins or Carolina Panthers make the most sense because of the draft-pick compensation they could offer. If the Texans can’t trade Watson before the NFL draft begins on April 29, then the odds increase he’ll spend the season in Houston.
Understand, a 25-year-old franchise quarterback has never been traded because they’re as rare as the yellow lobster caught off the coast of Maine last month.
If he’s not suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Recently, the league has often opted to wait for legal proceedings to play out before suspending a player for violating the personal conduct policy.
In 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He was accused of sexual assaults, but was not charged.
“They’re gonna put him on a yeti and let him sit for a while,” said Lewis Goode, who owns Goode Looks barbershop. “After this, he has to go somewhere. They ain’t gonna let him play here. He has to play in another market somewhere like a Democratic blue city.
“The NFL is a business. I hope he saved his money.”
This much we know, the city won’t return to any semblance of normalcy until its star quarterback’s murky future is resolved.
No matter how long it takes.