HOUSTON — Cleveland Browns star quarterback Deshaun Watson, facing potentially significant punishment from the NFL under its personal conduct policy, is set for a disciplinary hearing before jointly appointed disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson that begins Tuesday, according to league sources.
Potential one-year suspension looms
Watson, represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin and NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey L. Kessler and investigated by NFL senior vice president and special counsel for investigations Lisa Friel, a former Manhattan, N.Y.. chief sex crimes prosecutor, is facing an indefinite suspension of at least one year, according to sources.
Opening statements are set for 9 a.m. Eastern time and the hearing could last two days.
Robinson, a former Delaware district judge who’s now a practicing attorney, is expected to issue a ruling in advance of training camp. One source predicted the ruling could come as soon as within one week after the hearing is completed. This marks Robinson’s first hearing involving NFL discipline and the first case heard under a revised personal conduct policy under the new collective bargaining agreement negotiated two years ago.
The NFL and the players’ union have previously 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 behind a potential indefinite suspension, as the NFL imposed in the Michael Vick dog fighting scandal or Ray Rice’s domestic violence case, would be to give them flexibility to potentially impose further discipline in case other allegations of misconduct surface. Although no DNA, audio or video evidence exists in the cases, according to multiple sources, the NFL will use text messages and depositions and interviews to make its argument.
Under NFL rules governing personal conduct policy matters, Watson has the right to appeal to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The appeal could also be heard by another appointed officer.
Watson’s legal team will argue that he 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, and Jerry Jones for allegations of sexual misconduct. Watson reached a confidential settlement in 20 of 24 lawsuits that alleged sexual misconduct, sexual assault, or other inappropriate behavior with female massage therapists.
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.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee has stated previously he plans to include the Houston Texans, Watson’s former NFL employer, in a lawsuit alleging they enabled the three-time Pro Bowl selection’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. Buzbee has also said he plans to file additional lawsuits.
Watson was not charged by two Texas grand juries. He 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.”
Deshaun Watson settled 20 of 24 sexual misconduct lawsuits
There are still four active lawsuits, including Ashley Solis, the first woman to accuse Watson of inappropriate conduct, after Watson’s attorney announced that 20 of the cases were settled earlier this week.
“Today I announce that all cases against Deshaun Watson, with the exception of four, have settled,” Buzbee said in a statement on June 24. “We are working through the paperwork related to those settlements. Once we have done so, those particular cases will be dismissed. The terms and amounts of the settlements are confidential. We won’t comment further on the settlements or those cases.”
Buzbee intends to continue advocating for Solis and other plaintiffs.
“The cases against Deshaun Watson started with one phone call, from one brave and strong woman,” Buzbee stated. “That woman was Ashley Solis. At the time of that call she was just one of the hundreds of calls seeking legal assistance that our firm gets weekly. Even though she was originally turned away by our screening process, my staff insisted that I personally speak with her. I’m glad she persisted. Once we took a second look, and after having contact with Watson’s original lawyer who disrespected Ashley and her profession and who arrogantly minimized the conduct of someone he referred to as an ‘asset,’ I was convinced that our law firm should try to help her.
“As a result of Ashley’s lone but brave voice, soon many women who had allegedly experienced the same conduct were emboldened to step forward. I am incredibly proud to represent them all. They have endured vile criticism and fanatical ignorance. They faced withering cross examination by skilled litigators and stood firm. They are warriors all.
“Today we have an important announcement about these cases, but it is important to point out that, without Ashley Solis, the conduct experienced by these women would likely have continued unfettered. The truth is, without her courage and willingness to come forward, the NFL wouldn’t currently be contemplating discipline; there would be no examination of how teams might knowingly or unknowingly enable certain behavior; sports teams wouldn’t be reviewing their personnel screening processes; and this important story wouldn’t have dominated the sports headlines for more than a year.”
Watson: ‘I never assaulted anyone’
During the Browns’ minicamp, Watson spoke to reporters for the first time since his introductory press conference.
“Like I said, I never assaulted anyone,” Watson said. “I never harassed anyone or never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything. I’ve been honest, and I’ve been truthful about my stance. I never forced anyone. I never assaulted anyone.
“That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning, and I’m going to continue to do that until all of the facts come out. On the legal side, I have to just go with the process of my legal team and the court of law.”
Watson has met several times in Houston with Friel.
“I met with the NFL a couple of weeks ago and did everything they asked me to do,” Watson said. “I answered every question truthfully that the NFL asked me, I spent hours with the people that they brought down, and that’s all I can do, be honest and tell them exactly what happened. I know they have a job, and I have to respect that, so that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to cooperate, and they have to make a decision that’s best for the league.”
Lawyer: Settlement not ‘surprising’
Daniel Moskowitz, a criminal and civil lawyer with an extensive history of representing players in NFL personal-conduct policy and other matters governed by the collective bargaining agreement, said that the settlements in this high-profile legal matter don’t come as a surprise.
“Settlement shouldn’t seem surprising,” Moskowitz said. “Obviously, the claims and allegations command the highest seriousness. Yet, as often is the case in litigation regardless of the validity of the claims alleged or a party’s quest for justice – a settlement is reached due to certain optics and initially seemingly secondary factors that come to the forefront and facilitate a settlement. Here, despite Deshaun’s proclaimed desire to clear his name – the prospect of prolonged, seemingly never-ending legal dispute clearly came into play for Deshaun’s camp. The number of plaintiffs alone created logistical issues for the parties, which created a reality of years not months before this matter would have gone to trial. Tony Buzbee has the resources to go the distance. The prospect of protracted litigation was of no concern to Buzbee. At some point, resolution and the parties’ personal desire to move forward means more than ‘winning.”
“While many have commented that Deshaun and his camp need to brace for a punitive punishment from the NFL, one issue to consider/remember is the impact the #MeToo movement could have on all aspects of this matter. To be clear, this is not an attack on the merits and mission statement of #MeToo but to believe #MeToo wouldn’t impact the outcome of this matter is arguably naïve. This case is a textbook example of what necessitated the founding/existence of #MeToo: ensuring justice for alleged sexual harassment victims. Yes, the truth matters but given recent “#MeToo Backlash” notably, Johnny Depp’s defamation trial – one can anticipate the movement’s leaders would focus their efforts on this matter.”