Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games on Monday after two dozen women in Texas accused him of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, in what a disciplinary officer called behavior “more egregious than any other reviewed by the NFL.”
The penalty imposed by the game’s disciplinary officer, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson, fell well short of what the NFL had requested: an indefinite suspension of at least one year and a fine of at least minus $5 million for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Watson, who played four seasons with Houston before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during treatment in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL has three days to appeal the decision.
“While this is the largest sentence ever handed down to an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s behavior is more egregious than any other previously reviewed by the NFL,” wrote Robinson in the conclusion of his 16-page report. .
Even though the only discipline in the collective agreement is a fine or suspension, Robinson demanded as a condition of reinstatement that Watson “limit his massage therapy to club-directed sessions and club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career.”
She added that Watson must have “no negative involvement with law enforcement and must not commit additional violations” of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.
The NFL Players Association has already said it will respect Robinson’s decision. If either party appeals, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the decision, in accordance with the terms of the CBA. The union could then try to challenge this decision in federal court.
The league had sought a suspension of at least a year and the fine of $5 million for Watson, 26, during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June, two people close to the Associated Press told The Associated Press. discussions on condition of anonymity. because the hearing was not public.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract, will only lose $345,000 if the suspension remains unchanged, as his base salary this season is $1.035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is unaffected by the suspension.
In a statement, the league thanked Robinson for reviewing “the voluminous record … which led to its finding of multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson.”
“In light of his findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a decision on next steps,” the statement said.
Watson can continue to train and play in exhibition games before his suspension begins the first week of the regular season. He can return to practice in Week 4 and would be eligible to play Oct. 23 when the Browns play in Baltimore.
He waved to cheering fans as he and his teammates began their stretching period before practice Monday in Berea, Ohio.
“We’ve got your back, Watson!” one shouted.
The Browns’ first-team offense will be given to Jacoby Brissett, while Watson will be sidelined.
After learning the decision was imminent, the NFLPA released a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying it would not appeal Robinson’s decision and urged the league to follow suit.
“Every player, owner, business partner and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be tarnished by the whims of the League office,” the union said in a statement.
While the NFL demanded a harsh sentence, the union had argued that Watson should not be punished at all because he had not been convicted of any crime.
Two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson over criminal complaints filed by 10 of the women.
It was the first case for Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct – a role previously held by Goodell.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl pick with the Texans, had his playing career stalled by the allegations. He missed the 2021 season after demanding a trade before the allegations were released.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. A woman alleged that Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson denied any wrongdoing, insisting any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. He publicly insisted his goal was to clear his name before agreeing to confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
“This case started because a woman had the courage to come forward and speak out,” said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents women in civil lawsuits. “Her courage inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have happened without her courageous voice. One person can make a difference.
Buzbee said that while some of his clients “have strong feelings” about NFL procedure, he noted that civil procedure and NFL disciplinary procedure “are very different.”
“My role was to advance the case of my clients, in the civil courts – nothing more. I did. I am extremely proud of these women and the efforts of our legal team. The settlements are confidential. I do not I will not comment further on them,” he said.
Regarding the suspension decision, Buzbee noted that his team was not involved in this process.
“We don’t know what was presented to Judge Robinson by NFL attorneys. We don’t know how the NFL case was presented,” he said.
He added that “only a small fraction of these women we represent have been contacted by NFL attorneys. Beyond that, we cannot speculate and have no comment on the decision.”
Watson’s high-profile case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misconduct, as well as its support for women, and left the Browns wondering if they’ll ever find a quarterback. of franchise.
Since the trade, Watson has been exposed to the public, with fans wondering if the league had the authority to ban him from playing despite the lack of criminal charges.
The league has been sensitive to his image and imposed appropriate discipline on Watson after he was criticized for his handling of prior cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, quarterback Pittsburgh guard Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt among others.
For their part, the Browns have been widely condemned for signing Watson. The team is desperate for a long-term answer at quarterback – they’ve had 32 starters, a league-high since 1999 – and many have wondered why the team would face a player with so much baggage.
During his introductory press conference after his transfer to Cleveland, Watson was adamant about his innocence.
“I have never assaulted, disrespected or harassed a woman in my life,” he told the stage, where he was joined by Browns general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. . “I was brought up differently. It’s not my DNA. It’s not my culture. It’s not me as a person.
He repeated those comments three months later during the Browns’ minicamp, insisting his only goal was to clear his name. However, a week later he settled 20 of the civil lawsuits. All remaining lawsuits could still go to trial, but not until 2023 after both sides agreed to wait until the upcoming season.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against the Texans after they claimed the team ignored and cleared Watson as he harassed and assaulted them during therapy sessions. The terms of the settlements have been kept confidential.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns – along with several other teams – sued Watson after the first grand jury declined to indict him.
Initially, Watson turned down the Browns. But Cleveland owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam lured him with the richest fully guaranteed contract in league history, up to that point.
Watson had other offers but chose the Browns and waived his no-trade clause to join a team coming off a disappointing 8-9 season. Cleveland completed the deal on March 18 by agreeing to send Houston three first-round picks and six overall picks for Watson.
The Haslams said any concerns they had about his character or behavior were alleviated when they flew to Houston with Berry and Stefanski and spent time talking to Watson.
All-American at Clemson, Watson was drafted by the Texans as the No. 12 pick in 2017. He started six games as a rookie before passing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns in his sophomore year.
Watson has become one of the league’s elite QBs, throwing for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2020 despite playing on a Texas team that went just 4-12.
By ROB MAADDI and TOM WITHERS