Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will serve an 11-game unpaid suspension, pay a $5 million fine and undergo professional evaluation and treatment under a settlement with the NFL after two dozen women made allegations of sexual misconduct.
The league had sought to ban Watson for at least a year for violating his personal conduct policy. He was accused of sexually harassing and coercing the women during massage therapy sessions while playing for the Houston Texans.
Watson signed a guaranteed $230 million contract after being traded to the Browns in March. The three-time Pro Bowler will lose $632,500 in salary this season while serving the suspension, which takes effect Aug. 30.
The settlement ended months of speculation and ushered in a ruling by former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who was appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell after the league challenged a six-game suspension imposed by Disciplinary Officer Sue L. Robinson had been appealed.
As part of the settlement between the league and the NFL Players Association, Watson must be evaluated by behavioral experts and follow her treatment program, the NFL said.
Watson, who recently apologized for the first time since the allegations surfaced, spoke to reporters after the settlement was issued. He offered more contrition, but also claimed that he’s never been out of place with women.
“I have always stood by my innocence and have always said I have never attacked or disrespected anyone and I continue to stand by that,” he said. “But at the same time, I need to keep moving forward with my life and career, and for us to move forward I need to be able to take steps and put pride aside.
“I will continue to stand by my innocence and keep pushing forward, and I have always insisted on not disrespecting or sexually assaulting anyone.”
As part of the deal, Watson could return for the Browns’ Dec. 4 game in Houston.
Along with his $5 million fine, the league and the Browns are each donating $1 million to a fund that will support nonprofits across the country to educate young people about “healthy relationships,” education and prevention of sexual misconduct promoting misconduct and abuse, supporting survivors and related causes.”
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who have been widely criticized for acting for Watson, stood by the QB. They said they expect him to learn and grow from the experience.
“Since Deshaun came into our building in April, he has done everything we asked of him and more,” Jimmy Haslam said at a press conference with his wife and Browns chief executive Andrew Berry. “And he was the person, the leader, that we expect from him and I think he understands where he is at in his life, it’s a crucial point and we as an organization will do everything not just to help him to be the best football player he can be, but more importantly to be the best person he can be.”
On August 1, Watson was suspended for six games by Robinson, a former federal judge who was jointly appointed independent disciplinary officer by the league and union.
Robinson found that Watson, 26, had violated the league’s personal conduct guidelines after reviewing an investigation into his actions, calling his behavior “outrageous” and “predatory”.
Believing the suspension was too light, the league appealed and referred Watson’s case back to Goodell, who had handled all player discipline in the past. The league had previously pushed for an indefinite suspension and a hefty fine.
According to the 2020 Collective Agreement, Harvey’s decision would have meant a “full, final and complete settlement of the dispute”.
At owner meetings this month, Goodell said the league’s pursuit of a year-long ban was justified based on its investigation and Robinson’s findings.
“She reinforced the evidence,” Goodell said. “There were several violations that were egregious and it was predatory behavior.”
In her conclusion, Robinson cited Watson’s lack of remorse as a factor in her decision. Watson issued his first apology “to all the women I’ve influenced” before making his Browns debut at a Jacksonville show on Friday.
Watson was accused of being sexually inappropriate with the women during the March 2020-March 2021 massage therapy sessions in Texas. In civil lawsuits in Texas, the women accused Watson of embarrassing themselves, touching them with his penis, or kissing them against their will. One woman claimed Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson, who has denied any wrongdoing. He recently settled 23 out of 24 lawsuits.
For now, the suspension ends months of speculation about whether Watson would play in 2022 for the Browns, who outbid several other teams, traded three first-round draft picks to the Texans in March and signed the QB to a five-year contract.
Watson’s case sparked strong opinion, raising questions about the league’s handling of player discipline and its patchy record of supporting women.
The Browns believe Watson could make them a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they might struggle to simply face defending conference champion Cincinnati in the AFC North along with Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The suspension also means Watson will be idle longer. One of pro football’s elite QBs, he sat out in Houston last season after demanding a trade and before the sexual allegations surfaced.
In her 16-page ruling, Robinson noted that the league proved Watson had violated three provisions of the conduct policy: sexual assault, as the league defined it, posing a real threat to the safety and well-being of others, and undermining or putting the League integrity at risk.
Robinson also pointed to flaws in the league’s conduct policy, saying it was unfair “to identify behavior as prohibited only after the behavior has been committed, just as it is inherently unfair to assign the penalties for such behavior after the fact change”.
Her punishment was criticized by several organizations, including the National Organization for Women, which called it “unacceptable, offensive, and dangerous — but not surprising” violence.”
Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents all 24 women who have sued Watson, and Ashley Solis, the first woman to go public with allegations against Watson, condemned the original six-game ban at a news conference in Houston in early August.
Watson has continued to practice while his case progressed through the league’s process.
All along, the Browns’ plan has been to hand their offense to veteran Jacoby Brissett, who has made 37 career starts, during Watson’s suspension. But it’s possible now that Cleveland is exploring other options at the quarterback.
Maaddi reported from Florida.