The disciplinary hearing for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has concluded after three days of legal proceedings in Wilmington, Delaware, before jointly appointed NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
Deshaun Watson’s disciplinary hearing concludes
The league, represented by NFL general counsel Jeff Pash and outside counsel, is pushing for an indefinite suspension of at least a year, based on their argument that Watson has committed multiple violations of the NFL personal conduct policy. Watson, 26, has been accused by massage therapists of sexual assault and sexual harassment. He wasn’t charged with a crime by two Texas grand juries.
The legal team for Watson — NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey L. Kessler and Houston-based attorney Rusty Hardin — made their case for the three-time Pro Bowl selection, facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, to receive no to little discipline based on evidence and little to no punishment in other cases involving NFL owners Robert Kraft, Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones, according to sources.
The hope for the Watson team is that he is allowed to play at least a portion of the season for the Browns, who acquired him in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Texans and signed him to an unprecedented fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
The league, represented by NFL general counsel Jeff Pash and outside counsel, is pushing for an indefinite suspension of at least a year.
The next steps are for both sides to submit legal briefs that are due the week of July 11, and then for Robinson to render a decision. If she determines that no punishment is in order for Watson, that marks the end of the disciplinary matter. If she does hand down a punishment, it can be appealed by either side and would be heard by either NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or a third-party officer.
Watson has agreed to confidential settlements with 20 of the 24 women who have filed civil lawsuits alleging he committed sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. He has denied any wrongdoing and maintained any sex with the women to be consensual. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints filed by 10 women.
Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Goodell or a designee is slated to issue a written decision that will be the final disposition of the disciplinary matter. Of course, there could always be a legal challenge in the court system.
This marks the first case heard by Robinson, a former U.S. District Judge now practicing law in Delaware, under a new system after the CBA that was amended two years ago.
A former first-round draft pick from Clemson, Watson reached a confidential settlement with 20 of 24 plaintiffs represented by Houston-based attorney Tony Buzbee. Buzbee has subsequently added the Houston Texans, Watson’s former employer, as a defendant, alleging that they “enabled” his “behavior.”
Robinson is expected to issue a ruling in advance of training camp. One source predicted the ruling could come very soon after the briefs are filed to Robinson.
Watson’s case information known thus far
The NFL and the players union previously attempted to strike a compromise on a settlement of a proposed punishment of Watson, who didn’t play last season and was paid his full $10.54 million salary after requesting a trade from the Texans. However, sources emphasized that they never came close to a deal.
The reasoning from the league behind a potential indefinite suspension, as the NFL imposed in the Michael Vick dog fighting scandal and Ray Rice’s domestic violence case, would be to give them flexibility to potentially impose further discipline in case 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.
When the settlement was reached, 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 has also filed a lawsuit against the Houston Texans, lawsuit alleging they enabled Watson’s behavior by providing a membership to the Houstonian hotel and spa and giving him a nondisclosure agreement for vendors. The Texans have stated previously they had no knowledge of Watson’s alleged misconduct.
Watson has maintained his innocence throughout the legal 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 recent minicamp 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.”