Deshaun Watson, in the cross-hairs of a high-profile personal conduct policy case and having settled 23 civil lawsuits in the wake of not being charged criminally for an alleged pattern of graphic sexual misconduct, has been suspended for six games by National Football League disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, per league sources.
Watson, who signed a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract after being traded to the Browns, will not face an additional fine, per sources. He’s due to be fined six game checks for a total of $345,000 at a rate of $57,500 per game.
Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett will start for the Browns while Watson is out. One source characterized it as a victory for Watson because the NFL wanted him to be suspended for the entire year.
“Throughout this process, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the newly created and agreed upon process for the NFLPA and the NFL to defer to the objective Judge Sue L. Robinson to comprehensively review all information and make a fair decision,” Browns owners Jimmy Haslam and Dee Haslam sad in a statement. “We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process. We know Deshaun is remorseful and that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
Note: The full 16-page ruling can be found at the bottom of this article.
Deshaun Watson punishment levied
The Cleveland Browns’ star quarterback, traded in March from the Texans in exchange for three first-round draft picks, was suspended after being accused by female massage therapists of a pattern of sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment.
Watson has the right to appeal the punishment, imposed by jointly appointed Robinson, to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but the NFL Players Association already announced in a statement on Sunday evening that it does not intend to appeal her decision and requested that the league not appeal the suspension. An appeal must be filed within three days after Robinson’s decision.
In her 16-page ruling, which can be viewed in full at the end of the article, Robinson wrote:
“The NFL may be a ‘forward-facing organization, but it not necessarily a forward-looking one,” she wrote. “Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct. At least in the former situation, the Policy was changed and applied proactively. Here, the NFL is attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice and consistency of consequence for those in the NFL subject to the Policy. Looking at the record when compared to the relevant precedent, and looking forward to how this disciplinary determination might be used in the future, I find the most appropriate landing place to be as follows:
“Mr. Watson is hereby suspended for six (6) regular-season games without pay. Although this is the most significant punishment every imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL. Recognizing that the only discipline mentioned in the CBA is a fine or suspension, I nevertheless believe it appropriate for Mr. Watson to limit his massage therapy to Club-directed sessions and Club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career, and so impose this as a mandate as a condition to his reinstatement. Mr. Watson is to have no adverse involvement with law enforcement, and must not commit any additional violations of the Policy.”
Robinson added: “I find that the NFL has produced sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove the last prong of the test, that Mr. Watson knew such sexualized contact was unwanted. I, therefore, find that the NFL has carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report.”
The NFL, in a statement, emphasized the league is keeping its options open. That could include a potential appeal.
“We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer, for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson,” the league said in a statement. “We appreciate Judge Robinson’s diligence and professionalism throughout this process. Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”
The players’ union previous signaled it will not file an appeal, though.
“In advance of Judge Robinson’s decision, we wanted to reiterate the facts of this proceeding,” the union said in a statement. “First, we have fully cooperated with every NFL inquiry and provided the NFL with the most comprehensive set of information for any personal conduct policy investigation. A former Federal Judge — appointed jointly by the NFLPA and NFL — held a full and fair hearing, has read thousands of pages of investigative documents, and reviewed arguments from both sides impartially.
“Every player, owner, business partner, and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be tarnished based on the whims of the League office. This is why, regardless of her decision, Deshaun and the NFLPA will stand by her ruling and we call on the NFL to do the same.”
Goodell can either hear the appeal himself or appoint a third-party arbiter. This marks the first decision rendered by Robinson, a former U.S. District Judge in Delaware, under a revised personal conduct policy altered two years ago in the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the league and the NFL Players Association, the players’ union.
Should the punishment be appealed, Goodell or a designee will issue a written decision “that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute.”
Daniel Moskowitz, a lawyer who specializes in personal-conduct policy and other disciplinary issues, weighed in on the unique situation to Pro Football Network.
“The Commissioner faces quite the quandary,” Moskowitz said. “Coming on the heels of his recent lambasting by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, among other Congressional members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform regarding the NFL’s lack of accountability of Dan Snyder, Goodell faces both immense political and social pressures to increase Watson’s proposed punishment. Yet, and this is very important, there has recently been a tide of change amongst judges willingly to find courts have jurisdiction to review a matter previously deemed hands off because it was a matter exclusively decided and dictated by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
“As we have recently witnessed in the Brian Flores litigation, wherein a judge allowed limited discovery regarding the NFL’s arbitration procedures for coaches. Even the decision by the judge to deny the NFL’s motion to compel the matter to NFL arbitration had to have sent reverberations amongst the NFL Management Council, that the precedence established by the 2nd Circuit in Deflategate and the 5th Circuit in Zeke Elliott’s appeal wasn’t totally bulletproof. Little doubt that Commissioner Goodell along with NFL main outside counsel in these matters Dan Nash are fixated in taking these new developments into account regarding whether to amend Judge Robinson’s ruling.”
Added legal analyst Jackson de la Garza: “It’s also important to keep in mind Goodell’s tendency to impose player discipline in situations that threaten the reputation of the NFL as a morally upstanding entity. Unlike his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner sees himself as the protector of the shield. In that regard, Goodell has no qualms about going against public opinion, he will act in a manner that in his mind upholds the integrity of the NFL. Here, Goodell won’t be swayed by outside forces with the exception of the NFL Management Council and owners. However, they likely will defer to him in this matter.”
Settlement negotiations unsuccessful between Watson, NFL, and NFLPA
Watson was represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin and NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey L. Kessler. He was investigated by NFL senior vice president and special counsel for investigations Lisa Friel, a former Manhattan, N.Y., chief sex crimes prosecutor. Friel interviewed Watson multiple times in Houston.
The NFL and the players’ union attempted to strike a compromise on a settlement of a proposed punishment of Watson, a former first-round draft pick from Clemson who didn’t play last season and was paid his full $10.54 million salary after requesting a trade from the Houston Texans, but sources emphasized that they never came close to a deal.
The reasoning from the league requesting an indefinite suspension would be to give them the flexibility to potentially impose further discipline in the event that other allegations of misconduct surfaced. Although no DNA, audio, or video evidence exists in the cases, according to multiple sources, the NFL used text messages, depositions, and interviews to make its argument.
Watson was not charged with any crimes by two Texas grand juries, and he has maintained his innocence. Watson’s legal team argued that the three-time Pro Bowl selection should receive little to no discipline under the NFL collective bargaining agreement based on the light discipline imposed previously against NFL owners Robert Kraft, Daniel Snyder, Jerry Jones, and Jerry Richardson for allegations of sexual misconduct.
On Monday morning [August 1], it was announced that Watson reached a confidential settlement in 23 of 24 lawsuits, including original accuser Ashley Solis, that alleged sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or other inappropriate behavior with female massage therapists.
“After lengthy and intense negotiations, I can confirm that, late last night, our team resolves three of four remaining civil cases with Deshaun Watson. We will continue to discuss the remaining case with Wastson’s legal team, as appropriate,” said Tony Buzbee, the Plaintiffs’ attorney.
He continued, “This case started because one woman had the fortitude to step forward and make her voice heard. Her courage inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have occured without that one brave voice. One person can make a difference.
“I have been asked repeatedly about my thoughts in regard to the NFL’s proceeding with Deshaun Watson. Although some of my clients do have strong feelings in that regard, I have nothing meaningful to say about that process. I’ve said in the beginning that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process are very different. My role was to advance the cause of my clients, in civil court — nothing more. I’ve done that. I am extremely proud of thse women and our legal team’s efforts. The settlements are confidential. I won’t comment further on them.”
When a number of settlements were initially reached weeks ago, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to Pro Football Network that the settlement wouldn’t affect the ongoing league investigation, writing, “Today’s development has no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.”
Buzbee previously added the Texans, Watson’s former NFL employer, in a lawsuit alleging they enabled the Georgia native’s behavior by providing a membership to the Houstonian hotel and spa and giving him a nondisclosure agreement for vendors. The Texans later reached 30 confidential settlements with the women while admitting no wrongdoing.
The nondisclosure agreement was given to him by a team security director after a female accuser threatened to “expose” Watson and posted his Cash App and telephone number on social media.
Buzbee stated that Watson sought out at least 66 different massage therapists and alleged the number is likely more than 100 therapists while employed by the Texans. Watson was not charged with any crimes by two Texas grand juries, and he has maintained his innocence throughout the process.
“I’ve been honest and I’ve been truthful about my stance and that’s I never forced anyone, I never assaulted anyone,” Watson said during a press conference. “So, that’s what I’ve been saying it from the beginning and I’m going to continue to do that until all the facts come out on the legal side. I have to continue to just go with the process with my legal team and the court of law.”
Official ruling on Deshaun Watson
The PDF below is the full ruling on Deshaun Watson, as written by Robinson.Deshaun Watson Ruling