Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended without pay for six games Monday for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following accusations of sexual misconduct against him by two dozen Texas women during massage treatments, two people familiar with the decision said Monday.
Watson, who played for four seasons with Houston before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during treatment in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL has three days to appeal the decision by disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson. The result was revealed by two people who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision was not publicly disclosed.
The NFL Players Association has already said it will abide by its ruling. If either side appeals, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the decision, subject to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The union can then attempt to appeal that ruling in federal court.
The league had lobbied for an indefinite suspension At least one year and a fine of at least $5 million for 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June.
In a statement, the league thanked Robinson for reviewing the “enormous record … that led to its discovery of multiple violations of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson.”
“In light of its findings, the League is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-match suspension and will make a decision on next steps,” the statement said.
Watson can continue to train and play in show games before his suspension begins in the first week of the regular season. He can return to training in Week 4 and will be eligible to play on October 23 when Brown plays in Baltimore.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed $230 million five-year contract, will only lose $345,000 if the suspension does not change because his base salary this season is $1.035 million. The $45 million signing bonus is not affected by the suspension.
After learning that a ruling was imminent, the NBA issued a joint statement with Watson Sunday night, saying they would not appeal Robinson’s ruling and urging the NBA to follow suit.
“Every player, owner, business partner and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be distorted at the whims of the association office,” the federation said in a statement.
While awaiting judgment, Watson was in a training camp with Brown. He went on to capture most of the cast due to the first team offensive, which would be handed over to support Jacoby Brissett while he was sidelined.
While the NFL pushed for a harsh punishment, the association argued that Watson should not be punished at all because he had not been convicted of any crime.
Two grand jurors in Texas refused to indict Watson over criminal complaints filed by 10 women.
It was the first case for Robinson, a former US district judge appointed jointly by the NFL and the union to deal with player misconduct – a role previously held by Goodell.
With a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Texans, Watson saw his playing career stalled by allegations that he behaved inappropriately with women during the massage therapy sessions he identified via social media. He sat into the 2021 season after calling for a trade before the allegations surfaced.
The women in the lawsuits accused Watson of exposing himself, touching her with his penis, or kissing them against their will. One woman alleged that Watson forced her to have oral sex.
Watson denied any wrongdoing, and insisted that any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. He publicly insisted that his goal was to clear his name before agreeing to secret financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
“This case started because one woman had the nerve to come forward and make her voice heard,” said attorney Tony Busby, who represents the women in civil suits. “Her courage has inspired many who have had the same experience. None of this story would have happened without this brave voice. One person can make a difference.”
Buzbee said that while some of his clients “have strong feelings” about the NFL’s actions, he noted that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process are “completely different.”
My role was to advance my client’s case, in civil court – nothing more. I did it. I am so proud of these women and the efforts of our legal team. Settlements are secret. “I will not comment on it further,” he said.
On the suspension decision, Busby indicated that his team was not involved in the process.
We don’t know what the NFL attorneys gave to Judge Robinson. We don’t know how the NFL issue was presented.
He added, “NFL attorneys have only spoken to a small portion of these women we represent. Beyond that we cannot speculate and have no comment on the decision.”
The high-profile Watson case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misconduct, along with its support for women, and left Brown wondering if they would ever find a player behind the quarterback.
Since the trade, Watson has been on public display, with fans questioning whether the league had the power to ban him from playing despite the absence of criminal charges.
The league has been sensitive about his image and has provided appropriate discipline for Watson after he was criticized for his handling of past cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women that include Baltimore retracting Ray Rice, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland retracting Karim Hunt among others.
For their part, Brown was widely condemned for signing Watson. The team was desperate to find a long-term answer in the middle – they’ve had 32 starters in the league since 1999 – and many questioned why the team would take on a player with so much baggage.
During his introductory press conference after being traded with Cleveland, Watson was adamant about his innocence.
“I have never abused, insulted or harassed any woman in my life,” he said at the podium, where he was joined by Browns general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefansky. “I was raised differently. This is not my DNA. This is not my culture. This is not who I am as a person.”
He repeated those comments three months later during Brown’s junior camp, insisting that his only goal was to clear his name. However, a week later he settled 20 civil lawsuits. Any remaining lawsuits could still go to trial, but not until 2023 after both sides agreed to wait until next season.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against Texas After the team allegedly ignored Watson and enabled him to harass and assault them during therapy sessions. The terms of the settlements were kept secret.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns – along with several other teams – went after Watson after the first jury refused to indict him.
At first, Watson Brown refused. But owners Cleveland Dee and Jimmy Haslam tempted him with the richest fully guaranteed contract in league history, up until that point.
Watson had other offers but chose Brown and waived the no-trade clause to join a team emerging from a disappointing 8-9 season. Cleveland completed the deal on March 18 by agreeing to send three first-round draft picks to Houston and six overall picks to Watson.
The Haslams’ family said any concerns they had about his personality or behavior were eased when they traveled to Houston with Perry and Stefansky and spent time talking to Watson.
Watson, an All-American of Clemson, was drafted by the Texans with a 12th pick in 2017. He started six games as a rookie before passing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns in his sophomore year.
Watson developed into one of the league’s elite QBs, throwing for 4,823 yards and 33 TDs in 2020 despite playing for the Texas team that only went 4-12.
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