The NFL will argue that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should receive a “significant” suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, multiple people familiar with the case said Friday.
Watson faces 24 active civil lawsuits by women accusing him of sexual misconduct. The allegations include making inappropriate comments, exposing himself and forcing his penis on women’s hands during massage therapy sessions. Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the allegations. Two grand juries in Texas declined to charge Watson with a crime. The NFL is preparing to present the findings of its investigation to Sue L. Robinson, the former U.S. district judge who is the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association under the conduct policy.
The league hopes the entire disciplinary process, including the resolution of any potential appeal to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person designated by him, is completed by the start of training camp, a person with knowledge of the matter said. The Browns are scheduled to open training camp July 27.
“Like I said, I never assaulted anyone or I never harassed anyone or I never disrespected anyone,” Watson said Tuesday at a news conference at a Browns offseason practice. “I never forced anyone to do anything.”
Under a process that was revised in the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA completed in 2020, the initial ruling on a prospective suspension or fine will be made by Robinson, now an attorney in Wilmington, Del., after she retired from the bench in 2017.
The case would be finished, with no appeals possible, if Robinson rules that there was no violation of the personal conduct policy. If she rules that there was a violation of the policy and imposes a penalty, either side could appeal to Goodell. The NFLPA pushed for revisions to the personal conduct policy in the CBA after clashes, some of which spilled into courtrooms after litigation filed by the union and players, in previous disciplinary cases. Previously, Goodell was responsible for making both the initial disciplinary ruling and resolving appeals.
It’s not clear whether Robinson will hold what amounts to a quasi-trial before she makes her decision. She declined to comment this week, referring questions to the league and union.
The NFL’s investigation has been conducted by Lisa Friel, the former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who is the league’s special counsel for investigations.
Friel interviewed at least 11 of the women accusing Watson who are represented by attorney Tony Buzbee, according to a person familiar with the investigation, along with other women. She reviewed relevant available documents. The NFL’s representatives interviewed Watson over several days in Houston.
“I can’t control that,” Watson said this week of the NFL’s disciplinary process. “I met with the NFL a couple weeks ago, and I did everything they asked me to do. I answered every question truthfully that the NFL asked me. I spent hours with the people that they brought down. And that’s all I can do is just be honest and tell them exactly what happened. I know they have a job, and so I have to respect that. And that’s what we wanted to do is cooperate. And they have to make a decision [that’s] best for the league.”
Hardin confirmed that he is involved in representing Watson in the NFL process along with the union but declined further comment on the league proceedings.
The league has made a presentation on the case to the NFLPA and Watson’s representatives, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That led those on Watson’s side of the case to conclude that the NFL will seek a substantial penalty.
It’s not clear whether Major League Baseball’s two-season suspension of pitcher Trevor Bauer under its domestic violence policy will serve as a precedent for the NFL’s proposed suspension of Watson, another person familiar with the league’s view said in recent weeks. But the NFL is aware that the length of the Bauer suspension could affect the public’s expectations and reaction in the Watson case, that person said.
Outside NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler has become involved in the case. A person familiar with the NFL’s view said the league is wary that Kessler will argue for no disciplinary action at all.
Kessler declined to comment Friday, referring questions to the NFLPA. The NFLPA could cite the lack of criminal charges, although the NFL’s policy allows discipline to be imposed without such charges.
The NFLPA’s defense of Watson will raise the issue that owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys were not suspended by the league for incidents involving them and their teams. That was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the case after first being reported by Pro Football Talk.
The league “ideally” would like to have the entire process, including the resolution of any appeal, completed by the start of training camp, a person familiar with the NFL’s view said, adding the disclaimer that the approach taken by Kessler and the NFLPA could slow the proceedings.
This first case being resolved under the new disciplinary system is a high-profile matter. A person on Watson’s side wondered whether Goodell might be reluctant to overturn the neutral arbitrator’s disciplinary ruling in the first case.
The league and NFLPA could reach a settlement at some point to preclude any appeal or further legal action by Watson.
The Browns completed a trade with the Houston Texans for Watson, 26, this offseason and signed him to a new contract worth a guaranteed $230 million over five seasons. Watson did not play last season; he was placed on the Texans’ inactive list on a weekly basis.
Any suspension would be without pay, based on Watson’s $1.035 million salary for the 2022 season. The NFL could seek to have a fine imposed, in addition to any salary lost by Watson. The league also could stipulate that additional discipline could be imposed if new information surfaces.