Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended without pay for six games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy in a ruling Monday by the disciplinary officer appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association. The suspension comes after more than two dozen women filed lawsuits accusing Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Sue L. Robinson, a former U.S. district judge, wrote in a 16-page ruling released Monday.
Either the league or the NFLPA can appeal Robinson’s ruling to Commissioner Roger Goodell or to a person he designates. On Sunday night, before Robinson’s ruling was released, the NFLPA and Watson said in a joint statement that they would abide by the ruling and urged the NFL to do the same. The NFL said in a statement Monday that it “is reviewing” Robinson’s ruling and “will make a determination on next steps.”
The league has three days to file an appeal in writing to Goodell. The NFLPA then would have two business days to file a response.
Watson has denied the allegations against him and has not been charged with a crime. He has reached settlements in 23 of the 24 then-active lawsuits. A 25th lawsuit was withdrawn.
Robinson made the ruling after conducting a three-day hearing in late June in Delaware. The NFL argued for an indefinite suspension of at least one full season, requiring Watson to apply for reinstatement, Robinson confirmed in her ruling. The NFLPA is believed to have argued for no suspension. Robinson made her ruling after each side submitted a post-hearing brief.
“The NFL may be a ‘forward-facing’ organization, but it is not necessarily a forward-looking one,” Robinson wrote in her ruling. “Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct.”
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center said in a statement that it “is disappointed by the decision,” adding that the six-game suspension “dangerously mirrors the flaws in our criminal justice systems and sends a grave message to our communities. Far too often those in positions of power and celebrity who commit violence against others are not held accountable for their actions.”
The initial disciplinary action comes as a result of a process that was revised in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA completed in 2020. The case would have ended, with no appeal possible, if Robinson had ruled Watson did not violate the personal conduct policy.
Before the new procedures were put in place, Goodell had been in charge of making initial disciplinary rulings and resolving any appeals. The system was revised via collective bargaining, at the behest of the NFLPA, after a series of clashes in player discipline cases, some of which spilled into courtrooms through litigation filed by the NFLPA and players.
The union scored initial court victories in disciplinary cases involving quarterback Tom Brady, then with the New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, delaying their suspensions. But they ultimately were upheld, and Goodell’s authority in player discipline generally was affirmed through appeals court decisions.
Watson was represented in these proceedings by his attorney, Rusty Hardin, and the players union. Jeffrey Kessler, an outside attorney for the NFLPA, participated in Watson’s defense. There has been speculation that Watson and the NFLPA could sue if he faces a full-season suspension when the appeals process is complete.
The NFL interviewed 12 of the women accusing Watson and compiled a 215-page investigative report, according to Robinson’s ruling. The case that the league presented to Robinson relied on the testimony of four women, along with interviews of 37 other people and other evidence.
The NFLPA argued the evidence presented to Robinson in those cases did not warrant the lengthy suspension the league sought. The union had planned to cite the NFL’s decisions not to suspend owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys for incidents involving them and their teams, a person on Watson’s side of the case said before the hearing.
Robinson wrote in her ruling that the NFL proved its case on all three points that it raised. The league proved, she wrote, that Watson committed sexual assault under the definition the NFL provided of “unwanted sexual contact with another person,” that Watson engaged in conduct that posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person and that Watson’s behavior undermined or put at risk the integrity of the NFL.
Robinson called Watson’s conduct “predatory” and wrote that, as a condition of his reinstatement, it is “appropriate” for him “to limit his massage therapy to Club-directed sessions and Club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career.” But Robinson also wrote that she was bound by the precedent of previous league-imposed suspensions.
“While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for nonviolent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players,” Robinson wrote.
The personal conduct policy allows for a player to be disciplined without criminal charges.
“We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process,” Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said in a statement. “We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
The women’s allegations against Watson in the lawsuits include making inappropriate comments, exposing himself and forcing his penis on women’s hands. Tony Buzbee, the attorney for the women, said in June that Watson had reached settlement agreements in 20 of the lawsuits. He announced three more settlements Monday.
“After lengthy and intense negotiations, I can confirm that, late [Sunday] night, our team resolved three of the four remaining civil cases with Deshaun Watson,” Buzbee said in an email. “We will continue to discuss the remaining case with Watson’s legal team, as appropriate.”
In Monday’s email, delivered before Robinson’s ruling was disclosed, Buzbee wrote of the NFL’s disciplinary process: “Although some of my clients do have strong feelings in that regard, I have nothing meaningful to say about that process. I’ve said in the beginning that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process are very different.”
Buzbee previously announced settlements by 30 women with the Houston Texans, Watson’s former team. One of the women had filed a lawsuit against the Texans accusing the team of enabling Watson’s alleged misconduct.
Lisa Friel, the NFL’s special counsel for investigations, oversaw the league’s investigation. She is the former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The league’s representatives interviewed Watson over several days in Houston this year.
DeShaun Watson was greeted by cheers from fans as he took the practice field— Steve Wyche (@wyche89) August 1, 2022
Watson did not play last season; the Texans placed him on their game-day inactive list on a weekly basis. He was not suspended and was paid his entire salary. In March, the Browns completed a trade with the Texans for the quarterback and signed him to a contract worth a guaranteed $230 million over five seasons.
The suspension will cost Watson $345,000 of his $1.035 million salary for 2022. Robinson did not impose an additional fine.
Watson is in training camp with the Browns and is participating in practices. Fans reportedly cheered for him at Monday’s practice.
“It remains a process that we’re certainly respectful of,” Coach Kevin Stefanski said at a news conference after practice.
Stefanski has said Jacoby Brissett, a veteran the Browns signed in the offseason, would take over as Cleveland’s starter if Watson is unavailable. The team did not make Watson available to reporters Monday.
“We have our plan,” Stefanski said, “and we’ll stick to that, again, until more information becomes available.”