Deshaun Watson Suspended Six N.F.L. Games for Sexual Misconduct
the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments was suspended Monday for six games for violating the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy and was not fined, according to two people with knowledge of the ruling who was not authorized to speak publicly.
As a condition of his reinstatement, Deshaun Watson was also directed to use only club-approved massage therapists, in club-directed sessions, for the duration of his career, one of the people said.
The N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association did not immediately return calls for comment.
The ruling was made by Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the N.F.L. and the players union to oversee player discipline. The league and the players union have three business days to submit a written appeal, which would be handled by Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing. The players union said in a statement on Sunday night — before Robinson informed both sides of her decision — that it would not appeal and called on the N.F.L. to let the ruling stand.
By the time Deshaun Watson is eligible to return from suspension, it will have been about 22 months since he last played in an N.F.L. game.
The ruling comes after a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then quarterback of the Houston Texans, had engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior toward women he hired for massages from the fall of 2019 through March 2021. Watson denied the claims and grand juries in two Texas counties declined to charge Watson criminally.
The breadth of allegations against Watson set this apart from any other personal conduct case that has been considered by the league, at a time when the N.F.L. is facing increased scrutiny over its treatment of women. The decision on Watson’s discipline was also highly anticipated, in part because of the substantial investment the Browns made in him, trading top draft picks to acquire his services and then awarding him a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract to become their franchise quarterback.
Watson has reached settlements with all but one of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty suits were settled in June, and shortly before Robinson issued her ruling, Deshaun Watson reached agreements with three more women, including Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first claim against Watson in March 2021, a lawyer for the women confirmed.
Among the conduct prohibited by the league’s personal conduct policy are sex offenses, actions that endanger the safety and well-being of another person, and anything that undermines the league’s integrity. The policy purports to hold people representing the league to a “higher standard,” regardless of how cases are adjudicated elsewhere.
The league and Deshaun Watson representatives could not negotiate a mutually agreed upon discipline, putting the case in Robinson’s hands. She oversaw a three-day hearing in late June, during which the N.F.L. recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and required to wait at least a full season to reapply, while the union and Watson’s representatives argued against a lengthy ban.
This was the N.F.L.’s first personal conduct case to be heard by a disciplinary officer instead of Goodell, a protocol established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. In advance of Robinson’s decision, the union called the new process impartial and legitimate while imploring the N.F.L. not to ask Goodell or his designee to override her ruling on an appeal. But the C.B.A. affords Goodell’s final say and makes clear that the determination by him or his designee will be final and binding.
The decision comes as scrutiny of the N.F.L.’s treatment of women has included a congressional inquiry into the workplace treatment of female employees at the Washington Commanders and a warning from attorneys general in six states, including New York, that they will investigate the league unless it addresses allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities.
The N.F.L. has been under the microscope for what has been perceived as inconsistency in how it issues discipline.
In 2014, after Goodell was criticized for his handling of suspensions, the N.F.L. created its own investigative unit to systematize its handling of cases involving allegations of violence against women. Yet the league has struggled to find a consistent way of adjudicating these cases because each one has its own complexities, particularly when no criminal charges are filed. This has led critics, including N.F.L. owners at times, to claim that Goodell and the penalties the league has handed down have been capricious.
In 2017, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games based on assault allegations that dated back to his college days, leading to questions about the league’s jurisdiction over the incident. New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was initially suspended for one game based, as it turns out, on incomplete evidence of domestic violence. When the league looked again at the case, it suspended Brown for an additional six games.
By contrast, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley last year was suspended for at least one season for betting on N.F.L. games.
Watson’s case, too, has presented unique challenges: Two grand juries declined to press charges, but reporting by The New York Times showed that Watson’s use of massage therapists and his questionable behavior were far more extensive than had been known. The volume of accusations and revelations increased the scrutiny of the case and led to more calls for a substantial penalty.
“Six games is paltry,” said Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo, “The sheer volume of the complaints should compel at least a full season suspension.”
Drew added that while the N.F.L. might want to seek a longer suspension, it would have to appeal the decision to Goodell. That would likely lead to charges that the commissioner is conflicted and could result in a challenge from the union and Watson’s representatives in federal court.
The N.F.L. began its investigation of Watson in March 2021, when the first accusers’ lawsuits were filed. The league’s investigators, who do not have subpoena power, met with 10 of the women who filed lawsuits, contemporaneous witnesses to verify their accounts, and other women who have worked with Watson.
An elite talent, Deshaun Watson requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season when Houston struggled to a 4-12 record. He was traded to the Browns in March, after a Texas grand jury declined to charge him criminally, for three first-round picks and three additional selections in the N.F.L. draft. A grand jury in a different county also opted not to bring charges against Watson.
The Browns anticipated Watson would be suspended for at least part of the 2022 season and structured his contract accordingly, loading most of his $46 million compensation for this year into a signing bonus. He will lose only a portion of his approximately $1 million base salary.
Watson can continue working out with the Browns during training camp. Pending any potential appeals, his suspension will begin with the Browns’ first regular season game on Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ seventh game, against the Baltimore Ravens, on Oct. 23.
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