On Monday morning, an NFL disciplinary officer suspended Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment. The league can appeal the decision, and commissioner Roger Goodell can either hear the appeal himself or designate an arbiter.
The NFL was pushing for an indefinite suspension of at least one year, and given the nature of the allegations against Watson, there’s been outrage that he was banned for less than half a season. How does Watson’s suspension compare to other recent NFL disciplines?
How does Deshaun Watson’s suspension compare to others?
After a 16-month saga in which Watson faced numerous lawsuits (the majority of which he has now settled), many expected the Browns quarterback to face more severe punishment. But while Judge Sue L. Robinson determined Watson’s “pattern of behavior was egregious,” his sexual conduct was “nonviolent” in nature.
Additionally, Watson won’t be fined as part of his suspension. Cleveland structured his contract so that he’ll only miss out on $345K as a result of his ban, and Watson was paid his full salary in 2021 while on the commissioner’s exempt list.
How has the NFL dealt with other serious off-field issues recently? Let’s take a look at a few examples.
In July 2009, a Nevada hotel employee filed a civil suit against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger alleging that he sexually assaulted her in June 2008. Criminal charges were never filed in the case, but Roethlisberger did later settle in 2011.
In March 2010, Roethlisberger was investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman inside a Georgia nightclub. The woman claimed Roethlisberger raped her, but again, no charges were filed.
Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for the first six games of the 2010 campaign for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The ban was later reduced to four games.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for the first two games of the 2014 season after TMZ posted a video of him dragging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of an Atlantic City elevator. In September 2014, a longer video that showed Rice knocking Palmer unconscious was released, and the Ravens immediately released him.
Goodell later admitted that he “didn’t get it right” regarding Rice’s punishment, and the muted suspension ultimately led to the NFL imposing stiffer bans for later domestic violence incidents. Meanwhile, Rice later filed a claim to recoup the $3.5 million he lost as a result of his release and reportedly won back most of what he was seeking.
In May 2014, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. Hardy allegedly grabbed her, strangled her, and threatened to kill her. In July, a judge found Hardy guilty and sentenced him to 18 months probation and a suspended 60-day jail sentence. Hardy appealed the decision, and charges were dropped when the victim failed to show up in court.
Carolina originally indicated it was comfortable with Hardy playing in 2014, but in September, the club deactivated him. He spent the entire season on the exempt list, and Goodell then suspended him for 10 games in April 2015. An arbiter subsequently reduced the ban to just four games.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley is currently suspended indefinitely — and at least for the entire 2022 season — after he was found to have gambled on the NFL during the 2021 campaign. Ridley admitted that he wagered $1,500 in total on parlay bets that included the Falcons winning.
Ridley had been on the non-football injury list dealing with his mental health when he placed the bets. He can apply for reinstatement on Feb. 15, 2023.
After being suspended for illegal hits at other points in his career, then-Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict received a 12-game ban in 2019 after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Colts tight end Jack Doyle.
Burfict later appealed the suspension, but it was upheld. His ban was the longest for on-field misconduct in the modern history of the NFL, and he has not played since.
Just this past offseason, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was handed a six-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Hopkins was banned for having the drug Ostarine in his system. As of June, Hopkins was still considering his options.
“We’re still doing some research right now,” Hopkins said, per 12News in Arizona. “Hopefully, before the season starts, maybe we can get the games down a little bit. But no, it wasn’t on me. I’m a natural. I’m pretty much a naturopathic kind of person, man. And what it was, it was called Ostarine, and there was 0.1% of it found in my system. If you know what that is, it’s contamination, not something directly taken.”
Josh Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and Darren Waller
Based on the punishment they’ve levied, the NFL has come down much harder on substance abuse than on sexual assault. For instance, Josh Gordon has been suspended six times by the NFL for marijuana and other substance use, and he’s only played in 40 of a possible 113 games since 2015.
Meanwhile, Martavis Bryant was banned for the entire 2016 season for multiple violations before being suspended indefinitely in 2018. He’s since played in the Canadian Football League but has never made it back to the NFL.
Now-Raiders tight end Darren Waller was suspended for 16 games as a member of the Ravens between 2015 and 2016. Thankfully, he’s overcome substance abuse to become one of the best TEs in the NFL.