BEREA, Ohio — If you were to trace the NFL’s Deshaun Watson call to a starting point, at a time when it became likely the league was going to overturn a decision by independent umpire Sue L. Robinson, it would have early in the disciplinary hearing attended by Watson and his legal camp, as well as representatives from the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
It was then that league attorneys were first told by Robinson that the NFL was most likely not will land the indefinite one-year suspension he was seeking for the Cleveland Browns quarterback, multiple sources familiar with the proceedings told Yahoo Sports.
It was a revelation that Robinson made in front of everyone, sources said. It was an immediate blow to the NFL’s efforts to impose a historic suspension on Watson, who was charged with sexual misconduct or sexual assault against multiple women, a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. It was a moment that surprised some in attendance, who mistakenly assumed Robinson wouldn’t tip his hand over a potential move midway through the process.
It also served as a wake-up call to the NFL, giving the league its first chance to reflect on what ultimately unfolded more than a month later: a league appeal of Robinson’s six-game suspension, which was much less punitive than the NFL wanted; and a requisition – or undermining – of a revamped disciplinary process that was established in the 2020 collective agreement.
Referee’s early signal shaped Watson-NFL settlement talks
Robinson warning the NFL during the hearings brings some clarity to what followed in the Watson case in July. This explains why media leaks began almost instantly that Watson would get a lesser sentence than the league was insisting on. It also explains why Watson’s camp and the union were encouraged to take a hard line in settlement talks, which ultimately ended with the NFL suggesting a 12-game suspension and a fine that would have been a significant portion of the 10 $.5 million earned by Watson with the Houston Texans in 2021. For some in the talks, it felt like the NFL was trying to turn Watson’s final season with the Texans (in which he never took the field) into a retroactive suspension. It was something the NFL could later point to and say, “Look, he lost most of what he did in 2021 and never took the field. So he was basically suspended. Now he has suspended another 12 games on top of that.
Ultimately, these settlement talks could hold the key to what happens next. Largely because it is commissioner Roger Goodell who will appoint a pro-league representative as the final arbiter in this matter, and it stands to reason that the next arbitrator will be well aware of what the NFL was pushing in talks of regulation.
What does all this mean?
Well, let’s take a look in the rearview mirror first. When it all started, Robinson was introduced as an independent arbiter who offered to balance the NFL’s court system. Following the league’s appeal, the curtain has been drawn to reveal what many suspected of day one proceedings: even with an independent umpire in place, the most important element of power still lies in the hands of the NFL. And it is ultimately the only window that counts in the years that follow. The NFL had the opportunity to leave an important point of suspension power in the hands of a referee. Instead, he chose to override that referee and take that control back.
Some would say it was the right decision in the Watson case. Others will cry foul. But the facts are what they are. The NFL had leverage to take control where it mattered most, and it pulled it on Wednesday.
The NFL is looking for 1 of these 2 results for Deshaun Watson
All of this brings back into focus what the league is asking for as part of its appeal. According to sources familiar with the call, the NFL is looking for one of two outcomes:
Watson would be suspended indefinitely for one year. During this year, he would undergo an element of treatment related to the behavior established in his case. At the end of the year, Watson would seek reinstatement and if he met league criteria, he would return to the Browns fold. In this scenario, Watson would not be subject to a fine as part of his sentence. However, his contract at Cleveland would take its toll, essentially starting his five-year extension in 2023 rather than 2022.
This last point is significant, as it would effectively push Watson’s next contract back by a year, erasing a season of spending power from his career.
Watson would face a significant fine if his suspension is ultimately less than a year. Similar to the first result, he should also undergo treatment while suspended. Consider this scenario a mapping to the league’s final volley of regulations in July, which would have suspended Watson 12 games and fined him close to his $10.5 million salary in 2021. That would be a significant financial cost. for Watson, but also a cost that would end with him returning to the NFL without having to seek reinstatement or toll his current contract for a year.
The inherent problem with these two outcomes is that Watson and the union have already rejected both – in the hearing with Robinson and in various settlement negotiations before and after these proceedings. The difference now is that Watson’s ability to find options is shrinking. With the NFL taking control of the end of the disciplinary process, the findings of Goodell’s designee will be binding, in accordance with the rules of the collective agreement.
This means that if the designated person achieves an outcome that Watson and the union reject, the next step is to follow in the footsteps of Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott and take the NFL’s disciplinary process to court. Even then, Watson may be at a greater disadvantage than either of these other players, as neither Brady nor Elliott went through an independent arbitrator to determine whether or not they violated the personal conduct policy of the league. Watson did, and that arbitrator made it clear in his ruling that he violated policy when he was deemed to have engaged in “nonviolent sexual behavior.” And the league’s appeal of the suspension is something that was voluntarily handed over by the union during CBA negotiations.
It looks like an uphill battle, which began with the last CBA and the structure of a disciplinary process that remains what it was before: resting in the hands of a league that seems to have no qualms about controlling it, especially when she is warned in advance that things will not go as planned.