Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games Monday for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following allegations by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, in what a disciplinary officer said was behavior “more egregious than any previously reviewed by the NFL.”
Watson, who played four seasons with Houston before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during treatments in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL has three days to appeal the decision of retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson.
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever meted out to an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any previously reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson wrote in the conclusion. of his 16-page report. .
Although the only discipline in the collective bargaining agreement is a fine or suspension, Robinson ordered as a condition of reinstatement that Watson should “limit his massage therapy to sessions conducted by the Club and Club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career”.
It added that Watson must not have “any adverse involvement with law enforcement and must not commit any additional violations” of the personal conduct policy.
The NFL Players Association has already declared that it would comply with Robinson’s ruling. If either party appeals, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee will make the decision, under the terms of the CBA. The union could then try to challenge that ruling in federal court.
The league had pushed for an indefinite suspension of at least a year and a fine of at least $5 million for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing with Robinson in June, two people familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press. . condition of anonymity because the hearing was not public.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed five-year deal for $230 million, will lose just $345,000 if the suspension doesn’t change because his base salary this season is $1.035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is not affected by the suspension.
In a statement, the league thanked Robinson for reviewing “the voluminous record … which led her to find multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson.”
“In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps,” the statement said.
Watson can continue to practice and play in exhibition games before his suspension begins the first week of the regular season. He can return to practice in Week 4 and would be eligible to play Oct. 23 when the Browns play Baltimore.
He’s been in training camp with the Browns and has continued to make the most reps with the first-team offense, which will be handed over to backup Jacoby Brissett while he’s sidelined.
After learning the ruling was imminent, the NFLPA released a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying they will not appeal Robinson’s ruling and urging the league to do the same.
“Every player, owner, business partner and interested party deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be clouded by the whims of the League office,” the union said in a statement.
While the NFL pushed for a harsh penalty, the union argued that Watson should not be punished at all because he was not convicted of any crime.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints filed by 10 of the women.
This was the first case for Robinson, who was appointed jointly by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct, a position previously held by Goodell.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Texans, has seen his playing career stalled by the allegations. He sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade before the allegations came to light.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. A woman alleged that Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing and insists any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. She publicly insisted that her goal was to clear her name before reaching confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
“This case started because one woman had the strength to step up and make her voice heard,” said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in civil lawsuits. “Her courage of hers inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have happened without that brave voice. A person can make a difference.
Buzbee said that while some of his clients “have strong feelings” about the NFL’s procedures, he noted that the NFL’s civil process and disciplinary process “are very different.”
“My role was to promote the cause of my clients in the civil courts, nothing more. I have done that. I am extremely proud of these women and the efforts of our legal team. Agreements are confidential. I am not going to comment further on them,” she said.
Regarding the suspension decision, Buzbee noted that his team was not involved in that process.
“We don’t know what the NFL attorneys presented Judge Robinson with. We don’t know how the NFL case played out,” he said.
He added that “NFL attorneys spoke to a small fraction of the women we represent. Beyond that, we cannot speculate and not comment on the decision.”
Watson’s high-profile case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misconduct, along with its support of women, and left the Browns wondering if they’ll ever find a franchise quarterback.
Since the trade, Watson has been on public display, with fans questioning whether the league had the authority to ban him from playing even though he had no criminal charges.
The league has been sensitive about its image and appropriately disciplined Watson after being criticized for her handling of previous cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, the Baltimore quarterback. Pittsburgh Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt. among others.
For their part, the Browns were widely criticized for signing Watson. The team has been desperate to find a long-term answer at quarterback (they’ve had 32 starters in the league since 1999) and many questioned why the team would take on a player with so much background.
During his introductory news conference after he was traded to Cleveland, Watson was adamant about his innocence.
“I have never assaulted, disrespected or harassed any woman in my life,” he said on the dais, where he was joined by Browns general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. “I was raised differently. That’s not my DNA. That is not my culture. That’s not me as a person.”
He repeated those comments three months later during the Browns’ minicamp, insisting his only goal was to clear his name. However, a week later he settled 20 of the civil lawsuits. The remaining lawsuits could still go to trial, but not until 2023 after both sides agreed to wait until after the next season.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against Texans after claiming that the team ignored and allowed Watson as he harassed and assaulted them during therapy sessions. The terms of the agreements were kept confidential.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns, along with several other teams, pursued Watson after the first grand jury declined to indict him.
Initially, Watson turned down the Browns. But Cleveland owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam seduced him with the richest guaranteed contract in league history, up to that point.
Watson had other offers, but he chose the Browns and waived his no-trade clause to join a team coming off a disappointing 8-9 season. Cleveland completed the deal on March 18 by agreeing to send Houston three first-round draft picks and six picks overall for Watson.
The Haslams said any concerns they had about his character or behavior were eased when they flew to Houston with Berry and Stefanski and spent time talking with Watson.
Watson, an All-American at Clemson, was drafted by the Texans with the No. 12 pick in 2017. He started six games as a rookie before throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Watson has become one of the elite QBs in the league, throwing for 4,823 yards and 33 TDs in 2020 despite playing on a Texans team that went just 4-12.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl