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Texans brace for Deshaun Watson’s return with Browns

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HOUSTON (AP) — Deshaun Watson was a star with the Houston Texans. Then he became disgruntled and later disgraced. After sitting out an entire season, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns. There, he has missed most of another as punishment amid sexual misconduct allegations.

Come Sunday, he’ll be back in H-Town, taking snaps in an NFL game for the first time in nearly two years.

“I think this will probably be the final piece to that story,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said.

Watson is set to return from an 11-game NFL suspension when the Browns visit the Texans on Sunday, an uncomfortable reunion with Houston after the team’s acrimonious split with the former face of the franchise.

“Deshaun is back. He’s playing football,” Smith said. “The way things go, his first game would be back down here.”

Sunday will be the first time Watson has played a regular-season game since the 2020 season finale on Jan. 3, 2021, when he threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns for the Texans in a 41-38 loss to Tennessee to cap a disappointing 4-12 season.

Less than a month later, Watson became unhappy with the direction of the team and requested a trade.

In the months after his request, more than 20 women filed civil lawsuits alleging that he sexually harassed or assaulted them during massages, sparking a police investigation. A grand jury in Houston declined to indict Watson on March 11, clearing the way for the Texans to trade him. He was dealt to the Browns a week later. The NFL suspended him and fined him $5 million in August.

Before that, he and the Texans spent more than a year in limbo, with Watson on the roster and required to report to the facility but refusing to play for the team. That prompted then-coach David Culley to withstand a barrage of questions about the quarterback.

“It was a little bit different last year,” said Smith, who was the team’s defensive coordinator. “Deshaun was in the building a little bit, but we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with him. But that is in the past. Changed area codes and all that.

“Now it’s just about a great quarterback coming into town that we need to get ready for with a history with our franchise.”

Despite Houston’s struggles in 2020, the Texans were confident that Watson would be their long-term solution at quarterback after being plagued by woes at the position for most of their relatively short history.

In the three seasons before drafting Watson with the 12th pick in 2017, the Texans had nine players start at least one game. Watson started six games as a rookie, finding immediate success before a season-ending ACL tear.

He returned in 2018, and his dynamic play helped the Texans to an 11-5 record and an AFC South title. Watson led Houston to a 10-6 mark and another division crown the following season before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs.

By then, Watson was a fan favorite in Houston. On game days, you’d see as many people wearing his No. 4 jersey as those of established superstars like J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins.

He endeared himself to the city not only with his play on the field but with multiple charitable endeavors across Houston. Watson made headlines as a rookie when the team released a video showing him giving his first rookie paycheck of about $27,000 to three Hurricane Harvey victims who worked in the team cafeteria.

Some fans became upset with him when he asked for the trade, but many blamed the problem on a team that had become somewhat dysfunctional after owner Bob McNair died in 2018 and his son Cal McNair took over.

But when the lawsuits began piling up and Watson remained out while the Texans struggled, some fans became ready to move on from the quarterback.

“I was a major Watson fan and thought he might finally get us to the Super Bowl,” Jose Rodriguez said at a sports bar Sunday while watching the Texans lose yet again. “But after everything that happened, I’m glad he’s gone and not our problem anymore.”

Houston (1-9-1), which finished with four wins for the second straight year last season, is struggling through another terrible season. With a team devoid of big names, it’s common to see jerseys of players no longer on the team at the stadium on game day.

Watt, Hopkins and Andre Johnson jerseys are commonplace. It’s rare to see Watson’s No. 4, so popular just two years ago.

Though the Texans and their fans are ready to move on from the Watson chapter, they are counting on the trade that sent him away to help turn things around. The Texans received three first-round draft picks in the trade, along with a third-round selection in 2023 and a fourth-round pick in 2024.

They used the first pick from the deal to take offensive lineman Kenyon Green with the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft. He’s started 10 games this season, and the Texans will use Cleveland’s first-round picks in the next two drafts to try and add talent to a team that seems overmatched in almost every way.

Despite their long history with Watson, the Texans will try to treat Sunday’s game as just the next one on the schedule as they try to snap a six-game skid. Smith was quick to point out that there probably won’t be much emotion toward the quarterback from Houston’s players since most of them never played with Watson.

“Did I tell you we’ve got a lot of young guys? They don’t know a whole lot about our past and what we’ve done,” he said. “They are just trying to get better and help us get another win.”

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Source: https://apnews.com/article/cleveland-browns-houston-texans-nfl-sports-eee3d017ae1734bd73ca66ad21511641

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NBA suspends Brooks, fines Mitchell for Grizz-Cavs scuffle

Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks has been suspended one game without pay by the NBA, and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell fined $20,000 for their roles in an on-court incident on Thursday night.

The league announced the punishments on Friday.

Brooks swung and struck Mitchell in the groin area during the third quarter after the Grizzlies guard had fallen to the floor. Mitchell retaliated by throwing the ball at Brooks and then shoving him.

Both players were ejected in Cleveland’s 128-113 win.

Afterward, Mitchell accused Brooks of being a dirty player.

“That’s just who he is,″ Mitchell said. “We’ve seen it a bunch in this league with him. Him and I have had our personal battles for years. There’s no place for that in the game. This has been brewing for years with me and other guys in the league. This isn’t new.”

The league said Brooks will serve his suspension on Sunday, when the Grizzlies host the Toronto Raptors.

Initially, Mitchell was scheduled to speak with reporters in Cleveland’s locker room. But the All-Star guard opted for the team’s larger interview room so he could address the incident with Brooks.

“I’m losing money,” Mitchell said before answering questions.

Mitchell said he and Brooks have been feuding for years. He also noted that Brooks has had similar altercations with other players.

“I’m not typically someone who gets ejected for stuff like that,” Mitchell said. “But at the end of the day, I think my reaction was reacting to a cheap shot. If punishment doesn’t come from that, he’s just going to keep doing it.

“It’s just dumb to be honest with you and I’m going to appeal it because I don’t think I should’ve gotten ejected for defending myself.”

Before his ejection, Mitchell was having a rough night. He scored just six points on 2-of -1 shooting in 22 minutes while being guarded by Brooks. The two had matched up regularly when Mitchell played for Utah.

“That was cool when we were just talking, but that right there, a line has to be drawn,” Mitchell said. “The NBA has to do something about it. I’m not the only person this has happened to and there’s no place for that in this game.

“I took matters into my own hands. When you have a cheap shot like that, there was no need to do that.”

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Column: IOC talks tough on Russia — until Paris on horizon

The IOC likes to talk tough — as long as it’s not heading into an Olympic year.

Not surprisingly, as we draw ever closer to the cash cow that is Paris 2024, the hypocrites running the Olympic movement are eager to get Russia back in the games.

They’ll surely find a way, despite Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and growing threats of a boycott from those who don’t think the Russians should be allowed anywhere near the City of Light — even if, ludicrously, the IOC is trying to pass it off as a human rights issue.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it more accurately: “A white or any neutral flag is impossible for Russian athletes. All their flags are stained in blood.”

For once, just once, we’d love to see the International Olympic Committee do the right thing:

Make it clear that the Russians — and their accomplices from Belarus — will not be allowed to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage until they halt the war in Ukraine.

There’s certainly precedent for such a decision.

— After World War I, the losing countries — Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) — were barred from the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. In fact, Germany’s ban lasted until 1928.

— The IOC acted in similar fashion against the two nations blamed for igniting World War II. Germany (which had split into two countries) and Japan were prohibited from competing at the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz, as well as the Summer Games a few months later in London.

— South Africa was rightfully barred from the Olympics from 1964 through 1988 and kicked out of the IOC altogether for waging war on its own people through its abhorrent apartheid system. Only when white-minority rule collapsed was South Africa allowed to compete again at the Barcelona Games in 1992.

IOC officials maintain that Russia doesn’t deserve to be treated like South Africa because it’s not under United Nations sanctions.

Of course, that’s a disingenuous argument. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, which means it has the right to veto any measure. In other words, there is no chance of UN sanctions — which presumably means the Russians could never be barred from the Olympics.

Frankly, Russia should’ve been kicked out after its massive, state-sponsored doping ring from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games was exposed, not to mention its continued efforts to cover up a level of cheating that hadn’t been seen since the notorious East German days.

But the IOC could never muster the courage to pull the trigger on a proper punishment, instead allowing the Russians to compete at the last three Olympics as supposedly neutral athletes known by the ludicrous monikers of OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) and ROC (Russian Olympic Committee).

Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine a mere four days after the closing ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, a curious sense of timing that may not have been coincidental.

At that point, with the next Olympics nearly 2 1/2 years away, the IOC could lead worldwide sanctions that barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at most international competitions across a wide range of sports.

Those bans largely remain in place, but now the next Olympics are a year closer. The IOC has changed course, looking for a way out to give a pair of warmongering nations a way in.

With its usual double-speak, the IOC said its mission is “to unite the entire world in a peaceful competition.” Instead, its cow-towing to Russia could spark the biggest Olympic boycott since the Cold War era.

Ukraine has raised the possibility of sitting out the Paris Games if the Russians are there. Neighboring countries such as Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have signaled they may be willing to follow that lead.

The United States is highly unlikely to join such a protest, especially after the Jimmy Carter-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan is largely viewed as a major blunder that left behind lingering bitterness from athletes who missed out on their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The new leader of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sent out a letter to athletes and other stakeholders last week, reiterating the organization’s support for finding a way for Russian athletes to compete in Paris as neutrals.

“We encouraged the IOC to continue exploring a process that would preserve the existing sanctions, ensuring only neutral athletes who are clean are welcome to compete,” Gene Sykes wrote. “If these conditions of neutrality and safe, clean, and fair competition can be met, we believe the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games can prevail.”

If the IOC is determined to clear the way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in Paris, it goes without saying they should only allow those who haven’t actively supported the war, though that requirement may pose some challenges of its own.

Going further, it should only be athletes who compete in individual sports, perhaps making them part of the Refugee Team to further dilute any connection to the shameful deeds of their homelands.

Even then, contact sports such as judo and wrestling might also be ruled out to avoid putting athletes in the unenviable position of deciding whether to withdraw rather than grappling with a competitor from Russia or Belarus.

By all means, Russia and Belarus should be barred from any team sports in Paris, since it would be clear which countries those squads were representing no matter the acronym.

There’s one athlete who, if reports out of Ukraine are accurate, definitely won’t get a chance to compete in Paris next summer.

Volodymyr Androshchuk, a 22-year-old Ukrainian decathlete-turned-soldier, who was killed in recent days while fighting the Russian invaders, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs.

“RIP, Volodymyr,” Gerashchenko tweeted. “We keep losing our best people.”

Your move, IOC.

For once, do your best.

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Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Ukraine pushes to exclude Russia from 2024 Paris Olympics

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — With next year’s Paris Olympics on the horizon and Russia’s invasion looking more like a prolonged conflict, Ukraine’s sports minister on Friday renewed a threat to boycott the games if Russia and Belarus are allowed to compete and said Kyiv would lobby other nations to join.

Such a move could lead to the biggest rift in the Olympic movement since the Cold War era.

No nation has declared it will boycott the 2024 Summer Games. But Ukraine won support from Poland, the Baltic nations and Denmark, who pushed back against an International Olympic Committee plan to allow delegations from Russia and ally Belarus to compete in Paris as “neutral athletes,” without flags or anthems.

“We cannot compromise on the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes,” said Ukrainian Sports Minister Vadym Huttsait, who also heads its national Olympic committee, citing attacks on his country, the deaths of its athletes and the destruction of its sports facilities.

A meeting of his committee did not commit to a boycott but approved plans to try to persuade global sports officials in the next two months — including discussion of a possible boycott.

Huttsait added: “As a last option, but I note that this is my personal opinion, if we do not succeed, then we will have to boycott the Olympic Games.”

Paris will be the final Olympics under outgoing IOC head Thomas Bach, who is looking to his legacy after a tenure marked by disputes over Russia’s status — first over widespread doping scandals and now over the war in Ukraine.

Bach’s views were shaped when he was an Olympic gold medalist in fencing and his country, West Germany, took part in the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He has condemned that decision ever since.

Russia has cautiously welcomed the IOC’s decision to give it a path to the Olympics but demands it drop a condition that would leave out those athletes deemed to be “actively supporting the war in Ukraine.”

Russian Olympic Committee head Stanislav Pozdnyakov, who was a teammate of Ukraine’s Huttsait at the 1992 Olympics, called that aspect discriminatory. The IOC, which previously recommended excluding Russia and Belarus from world sports on safety grounds, now argues it cannot discriminate against them purely based on citizenship.

The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania urged the IOC to ban Russia and said a boycott was a possibility.

“I think that our efforts should be on convincing our other friends and allies that the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes is just wrong,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “So boycotting is the next step. I think people will understand why this is necessary.”

The IOC said in a statement that “this threat of a boycott only leads to further escalation of the situation, not only in sport, but also in the wider context. It is regretful that politicians are misusing athletes and sport as tools to achieve their political objectives.”

It added bluntly: “Why punish athletes from your country for the Russian government starting the war?”

Poland’s sports minister Kamil Bortniczuk said as many as 40 countries could jointly condemn Russian and Belarusian participation at Paris in a statement next week but that it could stop short of a boycott threat. He told state news agency PAP that the IOC was being “naive” and should reflect on its position.

Denmark wants a ban on Russian athletes “from all international sports as long as their attacks on Ukraine continue,” said Danish Culture Minister Jakob Engel-Schmidt.

“We must not waver in relation to Russia. The government’s line is clear. Russia must be banned,” he said. “This also applies to Russian athletes who participate under a neutral flag. It is completely incomprehensible that there are apparently doubts about the line in the IOC.”

Asked by The Associated Press about the boycott threats and the IOC plan, Paris 2024 organizing committee head Tony Estanguet would not comment “about political decisions.”

“My job is to make sure that all athletes who want to participate will be offered the best conditions in terms of security, to offer them the chance to live their dream,” he said in Marseille.

Ukraine boycotted some sporting events last year rather than compete against Russians.

Huttsait said a boycott would be very tough, saying it was “very important for us that our flag is at the Olympic Games; it is very important for us that our athletes are on the podium. So that we show that our Ukraine was, is, and will be.”

Marta Fedina, 21, an Olympic bronze medalist in artistic swimming, said in Kyiv she was “ready for a boycott.”

“How will I explain to our defenders if I am even present on the same sports ground with these people,” she said, referring to Russian athletes. She noted her swimming pool in Kharkiv, where she was living when Moscow invaded, was ruined by the war.

Speakers at the Ukrainian Olympic Committee’s assembly meeting raised concerns about Moscow using Paris for propaganda and noted the close ties between some athletes and the Russian military.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday if athletes from the two countries compete, “it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states.” Los Angeles will host the 2028 Olympics.

If the IOC’s proposal takes effect, Paris would be the fourth straight Olympics where Russian athletes have competed without the national flag or anthem. The Russian teams at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and 2022 and the Summer Olympics in 2021 were all caught up in the fallout from a series of doping cases.

The last time multiple countries boycotted an Olympics was in 1988, when North Korea and others refused to attend the Summer Games in South Korea. The North Korean team was a no-show at the Tokyo Games in 2021, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The IOC barred it from the following Winter Games in Beijing as a result, saying teams had a duty to attend every Olympics.

Although the IOC set the tone of the debate by publishing advice on finding a way to help Russia and Belarus compete, decisions must be made for the governing bodies of individual sports that organize events on the 32-sport Paris program.

Those organizations, many based in the IOC’s home of Lausanne, Switzerland, run their own qualifying and Olympic competitions and decide on eligibility criteria for athletes and teams.

The International Cycling Union signed on to the IOC’s plan ahead of its Olympic qualifying events to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as “neutrals.”

Track and field’s World Athletics and soccer’s FIFA were among most sports that excluded Russian athletes and teams within days of the start of the war. Tennis and cycling let many Russians and Belarusians continue competing as neutrals. Other governing bodies are more closely aligned with the IOC or traditionally have strong commercial and political ties to Russia.

One key meeting could be March 3 in Lausanne of the umbrella group of Summer Games sports, known as ASOIF. It is chaired by Francesco Ricci Bitti, a former IOC member when he led the International Tennis Federation, and includes World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.

ASOIF declined comment Friday, though noted this week “the importance of respecting the specificity of each federation and their particular qualification process” for Paris.

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Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Bishr El-Touni in Marseille, France, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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