Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for six games after being accused by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments.
- The NFL’s disciplinary officer found Watson engaged in “conduct that qualifies as a sexual assault”
- Judge Sue L Robinson said there was a “lack of expressed remorse” on Watson’s part
- The league said it wanted to suspend Watson for more than a year
The punishment was handed out by the game’s disciplinary officer, former federal judge Sue L Robinson, who said Watson’s behavior was “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL”.
But the ban fell well short of what the NFL reportedly asked for: an open-ended suspension of at least a year for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Watson, who played for four seasons with the Houston Texans before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during the treatments in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL has three days to appeal the decision.
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson wrote in the conclusion to her 16-page report.
As a condition of his reinstatement, Robinson mandated that Watson only use massage therapists approved by the team for the rest of his career. And she said Watson must have “no adverse involvement with law enforcement and must not commit any additional violations” of the personal conduct policy.
The NFL Players Association and the Browns said they accepted Robinson’s ruling.
If the NFL appeals, league commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the ruling on an appropriate punishment, per terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
The players’ union then could try to challenge that ruling in federal court.
The league had pushed for a suspension of at least a year and a $US5 million ($7.1 million) fine for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing before Ms Robinson in June, two people familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The NFL presented a 215-page report based on dozens of interviews, including testimony from four of 12 women interviewed by league investigators.
Robinson determined Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy:
- Conduct that qualifies as a sexual assault
- Conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person
- Conduct that undermines, or puts at risk, the integrity of the NFL
When pressed on the gravity of the first two violations, Brown’s coach Kevin Stefanski repeatedly insisted that Watson “is working to be the best version of himself… and I believe that”.
Robinson said the league acknowledged at the hearing that its recommended punishment was “unprecedented” and she concluded the NFL should not change its standards of discipline for non-violent sexual assault without giving fair notice to players.
“Defining prohibited conduct plays a critical role in the rule of law, enabling people to predict the consequences of their behavior,” she wrote.
“It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unfair to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”
Robinson rejected Watson’s denials of wrongdoing and considered his “lack of expressed remorse” to be an aggravating factor.
“As to mitigating factors, he is a first offender and had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events. He cooperated in the investigation and has paid restitution,” she wrote.
In a statement, the league said it is “reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”
This was the first case for Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct — a role previously held by Goodell.
Watson can play in preseason exhibition games before his suspension begins the first week of the regular season, and he returned to Brown’s training after the ban was handed down, seen signing autographs for fans, many of whom cheered for the big-name signing.
But Rhonda Whitelock, president of the Touchdown Browns Backers fan club in suburban Cleveland, said a six-game suspension is not long enough given the accusations made by so many women.
She said there were people in the group who were “disgusted” by the team’s decision to trade for Watson and would not watch the Browns anymore.
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam released a statement saying they “empathise and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process” but they would “continue to support him”.
Watson’s high-profile case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misconduct, along with its support for women.
The league has been sensitive about its image and handing out the appropriate discipline for Watson after being criticized for its handling of previous cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt, among others.
Watson has denied all wrongdoing, insisting any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. He publicly insisted his goal was to clear his name before agreeing to confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women June 21.
One remaining lawsuit could still go to trial, but both sides agreed to wait until 2023, after the upcoming season.