In one of the most significant disciplinary rulings in NFL history, Cleveland Browns star quarterback Deshaun Watson’s suspension was increased to 11 games with a $5 million fine in a settlement negotiated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, according to league sources.
The compromise and ensuing punishment represent a major increase from Watson’s previous six-game suspension levied by NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson and avoids a potential appeal in the court system of what was expected to be a suspension of at least one year. Watson was ordered to undergo a professional evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program.
Deshaun Watson’s suspension increased to 11 games in settlement
The punishment for Watson is a consequence of an alleged pattern of sexual misconduct in sessions with female massage therapists and violations of the NFL personal conduct policy as ruled upon by Robinson previously.
“I’ve always been able to stand on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone,” Watson said during a press conference in Cleveland. “I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence. At the same point, I have to continue to push forward with my life and career. I’m looking forward to just moving forward with my career and being able to get back on the field as soon as possible. That’s the plan, to continue to grow as a person, an individual, and keep moving forward.”
Two Texas grand juries declined to charge Watson with any crime. Watson has maintained his innocence and settled 23 of 24 civil lawsuits filed by plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee on behalf of massage therapists who alleged that Watson behaved inappropriately.
When asked why he has subsequently apologized, Watson replied: “For everybody that were affected by this situation. There were a lot of people that were triggered.”
Watson drew criticism on social media for maintaining his innocence.
“I think again, we respect his opinion,” Dee Haslam said. “I do think in counseling Deshaun will grow to learn a lot more about himself. If you know anything about counseling, it takes a long time to go through that process, and you could talk to the experts.
“He is doing the work. He is committed to doing the hard work to make himself a better person. I think he said that several times that he is committed to doing that.”
The Georgia native and three-time Pro Bowl selection issued a statement after the suspension was handed down.
“I’m grateful that the disciplinary process has ended and extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received throughout my short time with the Browns organization,” Watson said. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made. My focus going forward is on working to become the best version of myself on and off the field and supporting my teammates however possible while I’m away from the team. I’m excited about what the future holds for me in Cleveland.”
Browns general manager Andrew Berry expressed no regret for trading for Watson despite the controversy associated with that personnel decision, adding that he would make the same move again.
“Yes, we would,” Berry said. “We mentioned at the time our process was thorough. We felt like we made an informed decision. I understand why others may not have made the same decision that we did, but we do believe Deshaun has strong, positive qualities and we do think that he’s done everything in his power to integrate himself with our team.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked. We do believe that, as he goes through the self-improvement and self-growth process, that he has an opportunity to make a strong and positive contribution to our team and organization.”
And Browns owner Jimmy Haslam acknowledged that, of course, if Watsonor 26, wasn’t an accomplished quarterback in the prime of his career he wouldn’t be getting this kind of opportunity for a fresh start after these type of sordid allegations.
“I think in this country, and hopefully in the world, people deserve second chances,” Haslam said. “I really think that. I struggle a little bit. Is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be a part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? That is what we are going to do. You can say, ‘Well, that is because he is a star quarterback.’ Well, of course, but if he was ‘Joe Smith’, he would not be in the headlines every day. We think people deserve a second chance.
“We gave Kareem Hunt a second chance, and that has worked out pretty well. We are hoping this will work out, and we have strong belief it will. That does not mean we do not have empathy for people affected and we will continue to do so, but we strongly believe, strongly believe that people deserve a second chance. We believe Deshaun Watson deserves a second chance.”
Watson’s fine and contributions from the NFL and Browns will create a fund of $7 million to support the work of non-profit organizations across the country to educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes.
Dee Haslam expressed hope that this situation can provide education on this issue.
“I hope the conversation comes to ‘What can we do going forward to get the information out to help other people?’” Haslam said. “I think there is just a huge opportunity to talk about the major issues in our country in this area, such as sex trafficking, massage parlor abuse, etc. There is so much information that we can glean from this, and the opportunity is tremendous. We can continue to talk about Deshaun or we can talk about the major issues our country faces and make a difference.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had wanted Watson to be suspended for an entire year. Instead, he’s back in 11 games as long as he does what he’s required to do under the terms of his suspension and treatment program.
“Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine and a more substantial suspension. We are grateful to Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in addressing these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion.”
This decision avoids a potential appeal by the NFL Players Association, as previous suspensions have been delayed and ultimately upheld by judges in previous disciplinary matters involving Ezekiel Elliott and Tom Brady.
Watson was traded to the Browns from the Houston Texans in exchange for three first-round draft picks and signed to a fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
Watson had previously said he had no regrets, and a lack of stated public remorse was cited by Robinson in her decision to suspend him.
“As we have previously conveyed, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the NFL and NFLPA structure awaiting a final decision and we have respected the process,” Jimmy Haslam and Dee Haslam said in a statement. “Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, we understand this is a real opportunity to create meaningful change and we are committed to investing in programs in Northeast Ohio that will educate our youth regarding awareness, understanding, and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community.”
David Mulugheta, Watson’s agent from Athletes First who negotiated his unprecedented contract, wrote on social media: “Deshaun has always stated he is innocent of sexual assault. Nothing has changed in what he said. He also said he is remorseful, the decisions he made have created this situation. The settlement allows him to move forward with his life and career.”
Peter C. Harvey was expected to follow Roger Goodell’s direction
Harvey, a former New Jersey Attorney General and former prosecutor with an extensive background investigating sexual assault and domestic violence cases, had been assigned to rule on the NFL’s appeal.
Harvey helped write the current personal conduct policy adopted in the new collective bargaining agreement two years ago. Goodell had called publicly for Watson to be suspended indefinitely, and to miss at least one year before possible reinstatement.
“I can’t speak on the fairness,” Watson said. “I only can control what I can control, and that is throughout this process, the NFL did what they had to do and the NFLPA communicated with the legal side. Like I said before, I focused on being out here and being the best teammate and football player and quarterback that I can for the Cleveland Browns, and I let the legal side handle their side. Of course, everyone has their own opinion, but I think for my peace and my sake, I am going to keep my opinion to myself.”
League sources and legal experts previously told Pro Football Network that they would be mildly surprised, if not shocked, if Harvey wasn’t going to levy a significant punishment against Watson — had it reached that point. One source had flatly predicted a one-year suspension was coming, calling it a “slam dunk.” Another had predicted something lesser than a year.
“I know they’re going for the full year, but I could see Harvey doubling the suspension to 12 games and going for the $8 million fine or more and the requirement of treatment,” one source said. “It really falls in line with Harvey’s background, with wanting to continue to be associated with the NFL and the public outcry against Watson.”
“There were multiple violations that were egregious and it was predatory behavior,” Goodell said. “Those are things that we always felt were important for us to address in a way that’s responsible.”
The language Goodell used was contained in Robinson’s 16-page ruling (which can be viewed at the bottom of this article) in which she also took issue with the league escalating its request for an unprecedented punishment without proper notice while also admonishing Watson’s behavior and a described pattern of graphic sexual misconduct in his sessions with female massage therapists. In addition to Watson’s settled civil lawsuits, his former employer, the Texans, reached confidential financial settlements with 30 women who had accused Watson of inappropriate behavior.
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever 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,” Robinson wrote. “While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players.”
Goodell’s rationale was based on Robinson’s conclusion that Watson committed four violations of the personal conduct policy with nonviolent sexual assault of four massage therapists presented at a disciplinary hearing. Although characterized as nonviolent, previous cases of sexual misconduct have triggered suspensions in the range of 4-6 games.
“I think that’s the case,’’ Goodell said. “That’s what the facts say.’”
Under NFL collective bargaining agreement rules governing appeals, Harvey was required to act in an expedited manner with no deadline. Instead, a deal was reached.
Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, Harvey’s decision “will constitute the full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s), and parties.”
According to the personal conduct policy, the appeal will be: (i) processed on an expedited basis; (ii) limited to consideration of the terms of discipline imposed; and (iii) based upon a review of the existing record without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered. No additional evidence or testimony shall be presented to or accepted by the Commissioner or his designee. Any factual findings and evidentiary determinations of the Disciplinary Officer will be binding to the parties on appeal, and the decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, will be final and binding on all parties.
“It’s a part of the CBA that two parties have the right,” Goodell said. “Either party could certainly challenge and appeal that and that was something that we thought was our right to do, as well as the NFLPA. So, we decided it was the right thing to do.”
Harvey was also a designee in Ezekiel Elliott’s case, who challenged the NFL’s six-game suspension in a domestic violence case involving a former girlfriend. The punishment was delayed several times but ultimately upheld by a federal court.
How would a potential legal challenge have unfolded?
Daniel Moskowitz, a lawyer who has represented several players in NFL disciplinary matters, including Randy Gregory, David Irving, and Darryl Washington, weighed in on the high-profile case.
“I’m not surprised because both parties engaged in settlement discussions throughout the matter,” Moskowitz said in a telephone interview. “Many individuals are appalled by the punishment, and I get that. As we’ve seen in the past, people want closure. There was the possibility of high-ranking individuals, including high-ranking executives and owners could have deposed. That’s why you would want to settle. There were many reasons that drove them to make this deal. The litigation would have likely started, if they hadn’t, and that’s why the NFL didn’t want to wait for the designee’s ruling.
“Technically, we don’t know yet if it’s a fair outcome. Deshaun has to do certain things requirements and obligations to get fully reinstated. This could follow him for the rest of his career. There’s a reason why Jeffrey Kessler is the No. 1 sports lawyer in America. I think this is an excellent outcome because litigation would have been difficult and very long. He negotiated very well. There’s probably five lawyers in America who could have achieved what Rusty Hardin did as far as his handling of the criminal investigation. Rusty comes from a generation of great lawyers, and I can personally attest to that.”
“If the new arbitrator increases Watson’s punishment – once again, this sets up a legal battle between the union and league challenging the fairness of the penalties and Goodell’s authority to penalize the players for their alleged roles,” Moskowitz said. “In Elliott, the NFLPA did not wait for [Harold] Henderson’s decision because Henderson was appointed after the initial punishment determination by the NFL before filing suit with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to vacate his decision. Henderson did not rule until five days after the NFLPA filed its complaint.
“The NFLPA’s central argument was that Elliott had been denied fundamental fairness to properly defend himself in the hearing because they could not access the investigators’ notes, cross-examine Thompson, and question Goodell. The judge concluded fundamental unfairness existed from the beginning of the league’s decision-making process to punish Elliot and lasted through the arbitration, as Henderson’s decision to deny key witnesses and documents was a serious misconduct.
“The NFLPA was not given the opportunity to discharge its burden to show that Goodell’s decision was arbitrary and capricious,” added Moskowitz. “At every turn, Elliott and the NFLPA were denied the evidence or witnesses needed to meet their burden. Fundamental unfairness infected this case from the beginning, eventually killing any possibility that justice would be served.
“The district court, having found it could intervene due to a lack of fundamental fairness throughout the process ruled for Elliott and granted his request for a temporary restraining order enjoining the player’s suspension from taking effect. Why fundamental fairness here? If the NFL gets a year or more, how is that fair? It’s not the conduct at issue. It’s the fairness of Goodell’s actions? Why is Watson’s punishment more severe than Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones, etc.”
What’s the point of pursuing litigation from the players’ union’s standpoint?
Watson is represented by NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and Houston-based criminal defense attorney Rusty Hardin.
“If the NFL announced set punishments in advance, provided clear notice to players, followed standard procedures, and issued consistent discipline, there would never be any legal battles,” Moskowitz said. “Plus, the NFL would have stood a better chance with the three district judges who ruled against the NFL.
“Like any good general, Kessler already has his battle plan in place. Where to file the action and in which district contains the most federal judges sympathetic to Watson. The temporary restraining order is already a complaint and I believe they have already started the appellate brief. The issues remain the same and until cleared up litigation will always be an option.”
Sources and legal experts had predicted NFL would appeal
Robinson wrote that the “NFL is attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to — and consistency of consequence — for those in the NFL subject to the Policy. While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for nonviolent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players.”
Multiple league sources and legal experts had predicted that the NFL would appeal.
This marked the first case heard by Robinson and the first case under a revised personal conduct policy that was changed two years ago under a new collective bargaining agreement.
“I don’t think they will be able to stand up to the public pressure and perception,” a source said prior to the appeal being filed. “I could see Watson getting hit with a much longer suspension.”
In her ruling, she stated: “The NFL demonstrated that Mr. Watson engaged in sexualized conduct during the massage sessions. I find this evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Watson’s conduct undermined the integrity of the NFL in the eyes of the therapists. It is apparent that Mr. Watson acted with a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions by exposing himself (and the NFL) to such public scrutiny and speculation. Mr. Watson’s predatory conduct cast ‘a negative light on the League and its players.'”
A league source had weighed in on the possibility of legal action, which it has been speculated that the NFLPA will attempt, should Watson’s punishment be dramatically increased.
“A federal lawsuit is not going to work,” the source said. “It could delay the punishment, of course, but, ultimately, it’s not going to win.”
Now, that scenario has been avoided.
What’s next on the field?
Watson will not play in any more preseason games. He will be allowed to return to the Browns’ practice facility for workouts, but not participate in practice until Nov. 28. He is scheduled to play his first game Nov. 4 against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium following an offseason trade.
The Browns will go forward with Jacoby Brissett as their starter.
“We are excited about Jacoby and have a ton of trust in Jacoby,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “When Deshaun is ready, he will rejoin the team. I think back to when we were acquiring Jacoby and just the phone calls that I made to people who he has played for and people who he has played with, it was very, very consistent that you are getting a pro’s pro, somebody who is going to lead from out in front, works very hard at his craft and just is an outstanding teammate.”
The official ruling on Deshaun Watson
The PDF below is the initial full ruling on Deshaun Watson, as written by Robinson.
[pdf-embedder url=”https://static.profootballnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/15073838/Deshaun-Watson-Ruling.pdf” title=”Deshaun Watson Ruling”]