Deshaun Watson’s trade to the Cleveland Browns rankles area massage therapists

CLEVELAND, Ohio — When Theresa Gorski, a licensed massage therapist with an Ohio City private practice, learned the Cleveland Browns had acquired star quarterback Deshaun Watson, she logged onto Facebook to sound an alarm.

The March trade for Watson, who, at the time, faced 22 sexual misconduct lawsuits brought by massage professionals, was an affront to her industry, Gorski believed, and posed a danger by fostering a culture where sexual harassment is acceptable.

Gorski called on area therapists to boycott the Browns organization, using hashtags like #massageban and #believewomen. “I pledge to not work on ANYONE IN THE ENTIRE FRANCHISE during his tenure with the Browns,” she wrote.

Gorski’s post was met with plenty of support. But it also drew backlash.

When Megan Strohhacker, the owner of Pure Tranquility Massage Therapy in Parma Heights, learned about calls for a Browns massage ban, she, too, felt compelled to act on social media, but in a very different way.

“Half of these massage therapists posting this ridiculous ban have probably never worked on an NFL player,” wrote Strohhacker, whose client roster includes a handful of Browns. “MOST of them are the most genuine and sweetest guys ever.”

The Watson acquisition has elicited a torrent of reactions, but little attention has been paid to Northeast Ohio’s massage therapist community, whose industry lies at the core of the scandal. Many area therapists, shaken by news of the deal, exchanged warnings to be on the lookout for the new quarterback. Some defended the Browns, cautioning that many facts were unknown.

Others wonder why some of Watson’s accusers continued treating him during a session or accepted his appointments after alleged violations occurred, citing industry training that calls for the termination of a session in such situations.

Now, as the Watson drama plays out on a national level — he recently settled with 20 of his 24 accusers, and a harsh NFL suspension could come any day — local massage therapists say the episode has hurt a profession that is integrated with modern medicine but routinely suffers from false connections to sex work.

Last month in a radio interview, Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, seemed to legitimize sexual permissiveness inside massage rooms when he said that a “happy ending” — a term used for a certain sex act during a massage—is not a crime.

That kind of comment puts therapists at risk, said Gorski, a 20-year practitioner who once referred employees to the Browns: “Massage therapy requires an enormous amount of compassion and intellect. To see it being compared to prostitution or to say that ‘happy endings’ are normal, regular behavior is vile.

“My profession is being thrown into the gutter,” she added.

Familiar accusations

In Ohio, massage therapy is regulated by the State Medical Board, which requires an exam for licensure. Its benefits, including chronic pain management, cardiac rehabilitation and hastening recovery from joint replacement surgery, are recognized by National Institutes of Health and the American College of Physicians.

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Yet many men still walk into sessions with sexual intentions. Local therapists say they’ve been on the receiving end of many of the transgressions Watson is accused of, but few mechanisms exist to curb sexual harassment.

Dawn St. Leone, a 13-year license-holder who owns Studio 888 in Tremont, can relate to Watson’s accusers.

“When I heard them speak, I felt it in my stomach,” she said, describing previous experiences. “You think, ‘Oh my God, what do I do?’ I have to remain professional, but my heart’s pounding, I’m full of anxiety, and I have an hour and a half to go.”

Donna Agrinsonis, the owner of Heavenly Healing Hands Massage Therapy in Beachwood, said clients with sexual expectations have become bolder. “Years ago they’d beat around the bush,” she said. “Now they just come right out and say, ‘I want a happy ending.’ “

Of the small number of professional athletes Agrinsonis has treated, a few have asked for sexual favors, which she attributes to inflated entitlement. At the bottom of her price list, she includes two disclaimers: no sexual services, and no professional football or basketball players.

The nexus between massage-room solicitation and professional sports extends to the executive suite. In 2019, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting a prostitute at a Florida massage parlor. The charges were later dropped, and Kraft issued an apology.

Watson was dealt to the Browns by the Houston Texans for three first-round draft picks and three additional picks. The Browns guaranteed him $230 million over five years, the most in NFL history. Watson has denied all allegations of sexual misconduct, though he acknowledged engaging in sex acts with three therapists after sessions concluded, at their initiation. Two Texas grand juries declined to indict the three-time Pro Bowler for crimes.

The trade announcement was particularly vexing to area massage therapists who double as Browns fans. When Gorski, a lifelong fan whose childhood mixtapes included the “Bernie Bernie” song, emailed her boycott message to her distribution list, about 100 immediately unsubscribed.

St. Leone, a longtime Browns fan who has treated players in the past and is on the waiting list for season tickets, said she was “disgusted” by the deal, and wondered how co-owner Dee Haslam, “as a woman,” could have approved it.

St. Leone’s message to the new quarterback: “You know what you did. And every massage therapist in the world knows the truth, because at one point in our life we’ve all felt that pit in our stomach. Guaranteed.”

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A splintered community

But massage therapists are decidedly split on whether Watson deserves all blame. Several say that certain accusers are culpable for perpetuating massage-room sex stigma, noting that some of them continued to treat Watson after the alleged violations occurred.

In most states, including Ohio, massage therapists require ethics training to receive their license. Students are taught how to establish boundaries, address inappropriate requests and shut down sessions if a client crosses a line.

According to Nancy Broadbent, the director of Cuyahoga Community College’s 11-month massage therapy program, if a client engages in sexual behavior or innuendo that makes a massage therapist uncomfortable, it’s a violation of professional standards for the therapist to allow the situation to continue.

She cites the Association of Bodywork and Massage Professionals’ Code of Ethics, which requires therapists to “desexualize massage” and prohibits “any level of sexual impropriety (behavior or language) from clients or myself.” Otherwise, the code states, the therapist is at risk of losing their credentials.

But the reality is trickier. “It’s such a tough question,” said Broadbent. “Everyone has a different threshold of what’s OK and not OK. However, permitting sexual stimulation or gratification is a clear line that should not be crossed.”

Many area massage therapists who’ve been sexually harassed say the decision on how to react is a no-brainer.

“You nip it in the bud and either move forward or end the session, or you go to the police,” said Strohhacker, who has been harassed a number of times in her 18-year career and once called law enforcement when a client made a sexual request and grabbed her arm forcefully.

If she ever experienced the worst of what Watson is accused of, “I’d be out the door and leave them there,” she said. “They’re not going to chase after you naked.”

Beverly Briggs, who teaches at a Cleveland massage therapy school, is more direct, declaring that any woman who continued treating Watson post-violation lacks integrity and has besmirched the profession.

“I blame them,” she said. “Shame on you. You should know better. You did cross the line.”

Notably, however, not everyone who offers professional massages has received training in ethics and boundaries—a protocol mostly reserved for those pursuing licenses. Watson sought out massages from at least 66 women, several of whom he found on Instagram, according to The New York Times.

Many if not most of his accusers were unlicensed, and at least one had apparently never given a massage before. Moreover, a large portion of his accusers did stop sessions when the alleged violations occurred, according to the lawsuits.

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Erin Whelan, who runs Urban Haven Massage in Ohio City, has treated Browns players and fully backs the team. But she believes her community should come to the support of Watson’s accusers unless allegations are disproven. Many younger massage professionals don’t always have the experience to make sound judgments, she says. Sometimes, “You’re in the room alone, and you don’t want to [upset] the wrong person.

“I think more than anything these girls want to be acknowledged—not ridiculed or called gold-diggers,” she said. “That’s what makes me so angry. Acknowledge what happened. Don’t attack the victim.”

Lack of regulations

Ohio’s massage therapy structure is unique to the country. In 1915, Ohio became the first state to regulate massage therapy and began licensing therapists the following year. It is also the only jurisdiction where the State medical board serves as the regulating body.

But even though licenses are required to use the word ‘therapy’ or ‘therapist,’ anyone can offer massages in exchange for money or advertise the word ‘massage’ on a storefront, unless a municipality has deemed otherwise. And there is no shortage of unlicensed people offering massages on forums like craigslist.

The pairing of licensed therapists with unlicensed massage providers under the same general label is infuriating to many license-holders, who argue that the system facilitates deception, confusion, injury and sex-trafficking.

“There should be more of a penalty for performing a massage in Ohio without a certification,” said Rocky River therapist Doug Perry, who points to facial injections as an analogy. “I can’t just buy Botox off Amazon and inject someone’s face. That’s a crime.”

A bill that passed the Ohio House last year, and is currently before the Senate Health Committee, addresses that complaint. If passed in its current form, House Bill 81 would allow individual townships to regulate establishments so that only license-holders or students pursuing one can give massages.

“Our industry has to do this,” said Melissa Ryan, who runs Quality Health Massotherapy, in Steubenville. She has assumed a watchdog role on behalf of her profession, regularly filing police reports that document sexual activity inside massage establishments.

Critics of the bill could accuse it of putting well-intended massage practitioners who are invested in the craft of relaxation out of work.

But to many license-holders, that’s a fair price to pay if it means eliminating the association between a massage therapy clinic and a massage parlor.

“In a state where everyone has to be licensed to do massage, then someone like a Deshaun Watson, or Deshaun Watson himself, should understand that one is not the other,” said Ryan.

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