Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, was suspended from six games Monday without pay for multiple violations of the National Football League’s personal conduct policy, according to a 16-page report. released by the disciplinary judge who heard his case.
As a condition of his recovery, Watson was also instructed to use only club-approved massage therapists in club-led sessions for the duration of his career. He has not been fined and does not need to be accompanied.
Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the NFL and the players’ union to oversee the hearing, found that Watson violated the policy’s provisions by engaging in unwelcome sexual contact with another person, causing the safety and well-being of another person has been compromised and undermines the integrity of the NFL.
She described Watson’s behavior as “predatory” and “outrageous,” and said he had shown no remorse, but she rejected the NFL’s recommendation to suspend Watson for at least the entire 2022 season. Robinson reasoned that there was no basis in the policy for a severe punishment for what she considered to be nonviolent behavior.
The league and players’ union have three business days to submit a written appeal, which will be heard by Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of their choosing. The players’ union said in a statement on Sunday night — before Robinson notified both sides of its decision — that it would not appeal and called on the NFL to enforce the ruling.
The NFL has been criticized for inconsistently disciplining players for behavior off the field and for acting as judge and jury, and the Watson case was the first major test of a new collectively negotiated protocol, passed in March 2020, aimed at addressing of these problems.
Still, many people inside and outside sports said on Monday Watson’s sentence was lenient, with a sports law expert calling it “bad” and Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing many of the plaintiffs, calling it a “slap in the face.” ‘. ”
In a statement, the NFL left open the option to appeal the decision, saying it “will make a decision on the next steps,” while thanking Robinson for her “zeal and professionalism.”
The NFL Players Association declined to comment. Dee and Jimmy Haslam, the owners of the Browns, said in a statement that they respect Robinson’s decision and “empathize and understand that many individuals have been triggered during this process.” They said they would “continue to support” Watson.
The ruling comes after a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then quarterback for the Houston Texans, engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior against women he hired for massages from the fall of 2019 to March 2021. Watson denied the allegations, and grand juries in two Texas counties declined to charge him.
The scale of the allegations against Watson sets this apart from all other cases of personal conduct considered by the league, at a time when the NFL faces increased control over its treatment of women. The decision on Watson’s discipline was also highly anticipated, in part because of the substantial investment the Browns have made in him, trading the best draft picks to acquire his services, and then awarding him a fully-guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract to cover their business. become a franchise quarterback.
The Browns expected Watson to be suspended for at least part of the 2022 season and have structured his contract accordingly, putting most of his $46 million in compensation for this year into a signing bonus. He will lose only part of his base salary of about $1 million.
A rising star in the NFL, Watson, 26, was the most high-profile quarterback under investigation for sexual misconduct since the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger was banned for six games in 2010 after being accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old. old college student after meeting in a Georgia bar. His sentence was later reduced to four games. Like Watson, Roethlisberger was not charged with any crime.
Watson has reached a settlement with all but one of the 24 women who have filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty lawsuits were settled in June, and on the eve of Robinson’s ruling, Watson reached an agreement with three more women, including Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first claim against Watson in March 2021, Buzbee said.
The league and Watson’s representatives were unable to negotiate a mutually agreed discipline, leaving the matter in Robinson’s hands. She oversaw a three-day hearing in late June in which the NFL recommended indefinitely suspending Watson and waiting at least a full season to reapply, while the union and Watson’s representatives argued against a lengthy ban. The Personal Conduct Policy is designed to hold people representing the competition to a “higher standard”, regardless of how cases are adjudicated elsewhere.
Robinson made it clear in her written decision that her ruling was based solely on the information provided to her. She wrote that the NFL, which has no subpoena power, only investigated the claims of the 24 therapists who had sued Watson, interviewed 12 of these women, and relied on four accounts for its conclusions, as well as documentation and interviews with other knowledgeable people. of these claims.
Robinson wrote that she could not refute Watson’s “complete denial” of what she believed to be credible testimony from the two former sex crime prosecutors who led the NFL investigation and the four reports she said were “substantially corroborated” by evidence. But she also expressed her reluctance to set a new standard of competition with the discipline she issued for what she termed “nonviolent conduct,” which she seemed to define as an absence of physical violence. The NFL had argued that it was pushing for a lengthy suspension because Watson’s conduct was unprecedented.
This was the NFL’s first personal conduct case heard by a disciplinary officer in lieu of Goodell, a protocol enshrined in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Prior to Robinson’s decision, the union called the new trial impartial and legitimate, while she pleaded with the NFL not to ask Goodell or his agent to override her decision on appeal. The bargaining agreement gives Goodell the last word.
The decision comes after investigations into the NFL’s treatment of women included a Congressional investigation into the treatment of women workers in the workplace at the Washington Commanders and a warning from attorneys general in six states, including New York, that they are competition unless it focuses on allegations of harassment of women and minorities at work.
The NFL has come under scrutiny for what has been perceived as inconsistency in the way it exudes discipline and for what appeared to be a conflict of interest in determining penalties for its star players.
In 2014, after Goodell was criticized for his handling of suspensions, particularly in domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the NFL established its own investigative unit to systematize its handling of cases involving allegations of violence against women. Still, the league has struggled to find a consistent way to try these cases, as each case has its own complexity, especially when no criminal charges are filed. This has led critics, sometimes including NFL owners, to argue that Goodell and the penalties the league handed out were erratic.
In 2017, Dallas Cowboys returning Ezekiel Elliott was suspended from six games based on assault allegations dating back to his college days, leading to questions of league jurisdiction over the incident. Giants kicker Josh Brown was initially banned for one game based on, it turns out, incomplete evidence of domestic violence. When the league reconsidered, it suspended Brown for an additional six games.
In contrast, Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was banned for at least one season for betting on NFL games last year.
Watson’s case has also presented unique challenges: Two grand juries declined to charge, but coverage by The New York Times showed that Watson’s use of massage therapists and his questionable behavior were much more extensive than was known. The amount of accusations and revelations led to more calls for a hefty fine.
“Six games is skimpy,” said Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo. “The sheer volume of complaints should at the very least force an entire season suspension.”
Drew added that while the NFL may want to request a longer suspension, it must appeal to Goodell or anyone he appoints. That would likely lead to allegations that the commissioner is in conflict and could result in a challenge from the union and Watson’s representatives in federal court.
An elite talent during his four seasons on the field, Watson asked for a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season, as Houston struggled with a 4-12 record. He was traded to the Browns in March after a Texas grand jury declined to criminally charge him for three first-round picks and three additional selections in the NFL drawing. A grand jury in another county later chose not to charge him.
Watson can continue working out with the Browns during training camp. Pending appeals, his suspension begins with the Browns’ first regular-season game, on September 11, against the Carolina Panthers, and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ seventh game, against the Baltimore. Ravens on October 23. .
By the time Watson is eligible to return from his suspension, it will be about 22 months since he last played in an NFL game.