After being sued by 24 women who accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was given a six-game suspension by an independent disciplinary officer.
Judge Sue L. Robinson, who is now retired, issued her ruling on Monday. Robinson concluded in her briefing that Watson “engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report,” and a copy of that briefing was obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
According to a statement from the NFL: “Judge Sue L. Robinson, as the independent disciplinary officer, deserves our gratitude for her thorough review of the extensive record and careful consideration over the course of the three-day hearing that led to her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy on the part of Deshaun Watson. We are grateful for Judge Robinson’s professionalism and dedication to this case.”
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The league has indicated it is “reviewing” whether or not to file an appeal of the decision in accordance with the CBA’s provisions. In the event the NFL decided to pursue an appeal, it would be handled by either Commissioner Roger Goodell or another official of his choosing. The deadline for making a choice is this Thursday.
MORE DISAPPOINTMENT: The NFL’s bungled handling of the Deshaun Watson suspension is a laughingstock.
WINS IN ADDITIONAL LITIGATION: In 23 out of 24 cases, Watson finds consensus.
The NFL, Watson, and the NFLPA all presented their cases to Robinson, a retired federal judge who now serves as the NFL’s disciplinary officer, at a hearing at the end of June at a location that has not been made public. To make her decision on Watson’s punishment, Robinson complied with the CBA by reviewing the NFL’s investigation from the previous year and hearing arguments from both sides.
The NFL’s case for an indefinite ban is intended to give the league leeway to respond to any future cases.
Robinson concluded that the NFL was “attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to players,” which was a major factor in her decision to not impose a harsher suspension.
Since so many people accused Watson, his case was truly unprecedented. Two grand juries in the state of Texas also decided not to drop any charges against him.
Running back Ray Rice, who in February 2014 was suspended indefinitely for knocking out his wife in an elevator in Atlantic City, was the last player to receive such a punishment. After public outcry, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell increased Rice’s two-game suspension to an indefinite ban. The appeal was successful, and Rice was cleared to play again in November 2014. But no club would give him a contract.
In early 2020 and early 2021, Watson encountered legal trouble after multiple women whose services he had solicited via social media accused him of sexual misconduct.
These allegations surfaced soon after Watson publicly demanded a trade from the Houston Texans, the team with which he had spent his entire professional career. In 2021, twenty-two women (in March and April that year) filed lawsuits against him, and two more did so in May and June of the following year. Watson has settled with 23 out of the 24 women who originally filed lawsuits against him.
Watson missed all 17 games for the Texans last season due to his dispute with the team. After the first grand jury decided on nine complaints against Watson, but before the second grand jury ruled on a tenth complaint in March 2022, Watson was traded. The Browns gave Watson a record-breaking five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract in exchange for three first-round picks, two fourth-round picks, and a third-round pick from Cleveland (Houston also traded a sixth-rounder).
Claiming to have done their research on Watson’s situation, Browns officials said they had a positive impression of him as a person despite the allegations against him.
Coach Kevin Stefanski announced last week at the start of training camp that veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett, whom the Browns signed in March due to Watson’s injury, will take over as the starter. Brissett has spent the majority of his six years with the Indianapolis Colts as a backup quarterback, but he has still managed 37 starts, including nearly two full seasons as the team’s starting quarterback in 2017 and 2019.
In order to make room for Watson, the Browns dealt away incumbent starter Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers on July 6.
Brent Schrotenboer contributed.
This piece was published in the USA TODAY: NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games for a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.
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