The NFL appealed the six-game suspension of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson on Wednesday, according to a league spokesman.
The league challenged the sanction issued Monday by an outside disciplinary officer as a result of a hearing into allegations that Watson had engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior toward two dozen women he hired for massages. The NFL is advocating an indefinite suspension with the option of reinstatement after one year, according to a person with knowledge of the league’s appeal who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The league also recommended a fine and treatment for Watson and cited concerns about his lack of remorse in the brief filed Wednesday, the person said.
The union, which declined to comment, has until the close of business on Friday to respond.
Following a process agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association, Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing will hear the appeal. The league did not immediately say who would oversee the appeal, which will be heard on an “expedited” basis.
There is no set timeline at the CBA for a decision to be made.
Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge appointed jointly by the NFL and the players’ union to oversee the disciplinary hearing, found that Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering safety and well-being. be someone else’s and undermine the integrity of the NFL. She suggested in her 16-page report that Watson’s conduct, which she called “predatory” and “egregious,” might have merited a stricter sanction but was limited by league policies and history of former discipline.
Watson has denied the allegations against him and two Texas grand juries have declined to indict him. He settled all but one of the 24 lawsuits brought against him by women he hired for massage. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said they would “continue to support” the quarterback who was awarded a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract in March.
Robinson said in his report that Watson’s denials did not appear credible and that he showed no remorse.
The players’ union said before Robinson’s decision that it would not appeal, but after the suspension was announced Monday, the NFL said it would review its findings and “make a determination on next steps” within three business days. the CBA allows for contesting.
The six-game suspension was criticized by Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing most of Watson’s accusers, as well as sports law experts and advocates for victims of sexual abuse. The league had argued to Robinson that Watson deserved at least a full year’s suspension, while the union had fought for a lesser sanction.
Robinson said his decision to suspend Watson for six games was based on penalties the league had imposed in other cases related to gender-based violence.
The league began its investigation of Watson in March 2021, when Ashley Solis, a licensed massage therapist in Houston, filed the first lawsuit against him. The women said she assaulted or harassed them during massage dates in 2020 and 2021, when Watson was playing for the Houston Texans. In a report filed with Robinson, the league wrote that Watson had “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.”
Watson’s case was the first handled under a new process established in the 2020 CBA. By assigning an arbitrator to oversee the factual review and decide on the initial sanction, the review was intended to curb criticism of unconscionable power and Goodell’s sometimes capricious in the disciplinary process.
If Robinson had found that Watson did not violate the personal conduct policy, there would have been no disciplinary action and neither side could appeal. But he concluded there was enough evidence, including four women’s accounts that he said were “substantially corroborated,” to support multiple policy violations by Watson.
According to the CBA, decisions by Goodell, or his designee, are “full, final and complete” and binding on all parties, including the player.
The union can challenge the league’s appeal in federal court, as it has in the past with player conduct decisions. A noteworthy case came in 2015, when quarterback Tom Brady challenged his four-game suspension in the so-called Deflategate scandal. A district court judge sided with Brady, saying Goodell exceeded his power by suspending the quarterback for his role in an alleged scheme to knock air out of game balls to improve his grip. However, Goodell’s decision was upheld in 2016 by a federal appeals court panel that affirmed his broad authority to discipline players.
Michael LeRoy, an arbitrator who teaches employment law at the University of Illinois, said the CBA’s language made an “emphatic point” about the finality of the process agreed to by both sides.
“I think it’s virtually airtight against judicial nullification,” LeRoy said. “The courts are very deferential with the determinations of the facts, as well as with the conclusions regarding a contractual violation or not. So I think Watson will just face the windmills if he challenges this in federal court.”
Watson can continue to practice with the Browns during training camp while the appeal continues.