Deshaun Watson suspended for six games for sexual misconduct

Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massages, was suspended for six games on Monday for multiple violations of the National Football League’s personal conduct policy, but was not fined, according to a 16-page report. released by the disciplinary officer who reviewed his case.

As a condition of his reinstatement, Watson was also ordered to use only club-licensed massage therapists, in club-run sessions, for the duration of his career.

Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the NFL and the players’ union to oversee the hearing, found that Watson violated the provisions of the policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person. and undermine the integrity of the NFL. She described Watson’s conduct as “predatory” and “blatant” and said he did not express remorse, but rejected the NFL’s recommendation to suspend Watson for at least the entire 2022 season. Robinson said felt that there was no basis in the policy for such a severe punishment for what she considered non-violent conduct.

The league and players’ union have three working 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 Sunday evening — before Robinson informed both parties of her decision — that she would not appeal and called on the NFL to uphold the decision.

The NFL has been criticized for inconsistently disciplining players for their off-field behavior, and for acting as judge and jury, and the Watson case was the first major test of a new protocol, adopted in March 2020, aimed at addressing these issues.

Still, many inside and outside the sport said Monday that Watson’s punishment was lenient, with a sports law expert calling it “paltry” and Tony Buzbee, the lawyer who represented many accusers, calling it a “slap in the face”. ”

In a statement, the NFL left open the possibility of appealing the decision, saying it would “make a decision on next steps” while thanking Robinson for his “diligence and professionalism.”

The NFL Players Association was not immediately available for comment.

The decision comes after a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then a quarterback for the Houston Texans, engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior towards women he hired for massages. fall 2019 to March 2021. Watson denied the allegations, and grand juries in two Texas counties declined to indict him on criminal charges.

The breadth of the allegations against Watson sets this apart from any other personal conduct case that has been reviewed by the league, at a time when the NFL faces heightened scrutiny of 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 fully guaranteed contract from $230 million over five years to become their franchise quarterback. .

Rising NFL star Watson was the highest-profile player to be investigated for sexual misconduct since Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games in 2010 after he was accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old student. a meeting in a bar in Georgia. His penalty was later reduced to four games. Like Watson, Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime.

Watson has reached settlements with all but one of the 24 women who have filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty lawsuits were settled in June, and on the eve of Robinson’s ruling, Watson reached settlements with three other women, including Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, according to Buzbee.

The league and Watson’s representatives were unable to negotiate a mutually agreed-upon discipline, putting the matter in Robinson’s hands. She oversaw a three-day hearing in late June, during which the NFL recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and forced to wait at least a full season to reapply, while the union and Watson’s representatives argue. are opposed to a long ban. The personal conduct policy aims to hold those representing the league to a “higher standard”, regardless of how cases are judged elsewhere.

Robinson made it clear in his written decision that his decision was based solely on the information presented to him. She wrote that the NFL, which has no subpoena power, only investigated the allegations of the 24 therapists suing Watson, interviewed 12 of those women, and relied on four accounts to its findings, as well as documentation and interviews with others knowledgeable about the subject. these claims.

Robinson wrote that she could not place weight on Watson’s “complete denial” over what she considered credible testimony from the two former sex crimes prosecutors who led the NFL investigation and interviewed the women who participated. But she also expressed reluctance to set a new league standard with the discipline she pronounced for what she called “non-violent conduct,” which she seemed to define as an absence of physical strength. The NFL had argued that it pushed for an unprecedented suspension because Watson’s conduct had no precedent.

It was the first personal conduct case in the NFL to be heard by a disciplinary officer instead of Goodell, a protocol established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Prior to Robinson’s ruling, the union called the new process a impartial and legitimate while imploring the NFL not to ask Goodell or his representative to reverse his decision on appeal. The ABC gives Goodell the final say.

The decision comes as the review of the NFL’s treatment of women included a congressional investigation into the treatment of female Washington Commanders employees in the workplace 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 NFL has been under the microscope for what has been seen as an inconsistency in how it enforces discipline.

In 2014, after Goodell was criticized for his handling of suspensions, particularly in domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the NFL created its own investigative unit to systematize its approach to cases involving allegations of violence against women. Still, the league has struggled to find a cohesive way to adjudicate these cases, as each has its own complexities, especially when no criminal charges are filed. This led critics, sometimes including NFL owners, to argue that Goodell and the penalties imposed by the league were capricious.

In 2017, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games based on allegations of assault dating back to his college days, raising questions about the league’s jurisdiction over the incident. . New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was initially suspended for one game ultimately based on incomplete evidence of domestic abuse. When the league again considered the matter, it suspended Brown for six more games.

Watson’s case also presented unique challenges: Two grand juries declined to press charges, but New York Times reports showed that Watson’s use of massage therapists and questionable behavior were far more extensive than believed. thought. The volume of accusations and revelations has heightened the scrutiny of the case and led to more calls for a substantial sentence.

“Six games is a pittance,” said Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo, “The sheer volume of complaints should force at least a full season suspension.”

Drew added that while the NFL might want to seek a longer suspension, it should appeal the decision to Goodell. This would likely lead to charges that the commissioner is in conflict and could lead to a challenge by the union and Watson’s representatives in federal court.

An elite talent in his four seasons on the court, Watson requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season when Houston struggled for a 4-12 record. He was traded to the Browns in March, after a Texas grand jury declined to criminally indict him, for three first-round picks and three additional selections in the NFL Draft. A grand jury in another county also chose 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, charging the bulk of his $46 million compensation for that year in a signing bonus. He will only lose a portion of his base salary of approximately $1 million.

Watson can continue training with the Browns during training camp. Pending any potential appeals, his suspension will begin with the Browns’ regular season opener on Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ game seven, against the Baltimore Ravens, on Oct. 23.

By the time Watson can return from suspension, it will be approximately 22 months since he last played in an NFL game.

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