Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, was suspended Monday for six games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy but was not fined, according to two people with knowledge of the ruling who were not authorized to speak publicly.
As a condition of his reinstatement, Watson was also directed to use only club-approved massage therapists, in club-directed sessions, for the duration of his career, one of the people said.
The ruling was made by Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association to oversee player discipline. The league and the players union have three business 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 on Sunday night — before Robinson informed both sides of her decision — that it would not appeal and called on the league to let the ruling stand.
In a statement, the NFL left open the possibility of appealing the decision, saying that it “will make a determination on next steps” while thanking Robinson for her “diligence and professionalism.”
The NFL Players Association was not immediately available for comment.
The ruling comes after a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then quarterback of the Houston Texans, had engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior toward women he hired for massages from the fall of 2019 through March 2021. Watson denied the claims and grand Juries in two Texas counties declined to charge Watson criminally.
The breadth of allegations against Watson set this apart from any other personal conduct case that has been considered by the league, at a time when the NFL is facing increased scrutiny over 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 five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract to become their franchise quarterback. .
A rising star in the NFL, Watson was also the most high-profile player to be investigated for sexual misconduct since Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games in 2010 after being accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old college student. after an encounter in a Georgia bar. Like Watson, Roethlisberger, whose penalty was reduced to four games, was not charged with a crime.
Watson has reached settlements with all but one of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty suits were settled in June, and shortly before Robinson issued her ruling, Watson reached agreements with three more women, including Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first claim against Watson in March 2021, a lawyer for the women confirmed.
Among the conduct prohibited by the league’s personal conduct policy are sex offenses, actions that endanger the safety and well-being of another person and anything that undermines the league’s integrity. The policy purports to hold people representing the league to a “higher standard,” regardless of how cases are adjudicated elsewhere.
Deshaun Watson’s Troubling Behavior
The Cleveland Browns quarterback has been accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments.
The league and Watson’s representatives could not negotiate a mutually agreed upon discipline, putting the case in Robinson’s hands. She oversaw a three-day hearing in late June, during which the NFL recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and required to wait at least a full season to reapply, while the union and Watson’s representatives argued against a lengthy ban.
This was the NFL’s first personal conduct case to be heard by a disciplinary officer instead of Goodell, a protocol established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. In advance of Robinson’s decision, the union called the new process impartial and legitimate while imploring the NFL not to ask Goodell or his designee to override her ruling on an appeal. The CBA affords Goodell the final word.
The decision comes as scrutiny of the NFL’s treatment of women has included a congressional inquiry into the workplace treatment of female employees at the Washington Commanders 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 perceived as inconsistency in how it issues discipline.
In 2014, after Goodell was criticized for his handling of suspensions, the NFL created its own investigative unit to systematize its handling of cases involving allegations of violence against women. Yet the league has struggled to find a consistent way of adjudicating these cases because each one has its own complexities, particularly when no criminal charges are filed. This has led critics, including NFL owners at times, to claim that Goodell and the penalties the league has handed down have been capricious.
In 2017, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games based on assault allegations that dated back to his college days, leading to questions about the league’s jurisdiction over the incident. New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was initially suspended for one game based, as it turns out, on incomplete evidence of domestic violence. When the league looked again at the case, it suspended Brown for an additional six games.
By contrast, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley last year was suspended for at least one season for betting on NFL games.
Watson’s case, too, has presented unique challenges: Two grand juries declined to press charges, but reporting by The New York Times showed that Watson’s use of massage therapists and his questionable behavior was far more extensive than had been known. The volume of accusations and revelations increased the scrutiny on the case and led to more calls for a substantial penalty.
“Six games is paltry,” said Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo, “The sheer volume of the complaints should compel at least a full season suspension.”
Drew added that while the NFL might want to seek a longer suspension, it would have to appeal the decision to Goodell. That would likely lead to charges that the commissioner is conflicted and could result in a challenge from the union and Watson’s representatives in federal court.
The NFL began its investigation of Watson in March 2021, when the first accusers’ lawsuits were filed. The league’s investigators, who do not have subpoena power, met with 10 of the women who filed lawsuits, contemporary witnesses to verify their accounts and other women who have worked with Watson.
An elite talent, Watson requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season when Houston struggled to a 4-12 record. He was traded to the Browns in March, after a Texas grand jury declined to charge him criminally, for three first-round picks and three additional selections in the NFL draft. A grand jury in a different county also opted 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, loading most of his $46 million compensation for this year into a signing bonus. He will lose only a portion of his approximately $1 million base salary.
Watson can continue working out with the Browns during training camp. Pending any potential appeals, his suspension will begin with the Browns’ first regular season game on Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ seventh game, against the Baltimore Ravens, on Oct. 23.
By the time Watson is eligible to return from suspension it will have been about 22 months since he last played in an NFL game.