Sue L. Robinson, a former U.S. district judge, on Monday ruled Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should be suspended for six games over allegations that he sexually assaulted a sizable number of female massage therapists between 2019 and 2021. Robinson was called in to rule on the matter after a three-day hearing in June as “a Disciplinary Officer jointly selected and appointed” by the NFL and the players union, per the language in the collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2020. Previously, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was the sole arbiter of player discipline.
The NFL has three days to review Robinson’s ruling. If it disagrees with the terms, the league will appeal to Goodell, who could add more games to Watson’s punishment.
Here are four takeaways from Robinson’s ruling.
1. Watson committed sexual assault against the four massage therapists included in the NFL’s investigation.
Robinson found that the NFL had proved its contention that Watson committed sexual assault against the four therapists, in violation of the league’s code of conduct. The NFL defined sexual assault in the Watson case as “unwanted sexual contact with another person” and claimed the quarterback “committed sexual assault by allegedly ‘touching [his] penis to the women without their consent.’ ”
In the absence of a confession, Robinson said she had to weigh the circumstantial evidence in the case, and she found it sufficient “to support the NFL’s contention not only that contact occurred, but that Mr. Watson was aware that contact probably would occur, and that Mr. Watson had a sexual purpose — not just a therapeutic purpose — in making these arrangements with these particular therapists.”
Robinson also concluded Watson was aware such contact was unwanted by the therapists because one of them said she expressed her discomfort to Watson during the massage session, another ended the session early, and none of the four accepted his invitations for further massage sessions.
2. Watson’s conduct posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.
The NFL code of conduct also prohibits actions that pose a “genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person,” and Robinson again found the NFL had proved Watson violated this rule. The four massage therapists testified they went through some form of anguish after their sessions with Watson, with one of them seeking counseling and another considering other lines of work.
3. Watson’s behavior undermined the NFL’s integrity.
The NFL, Robinson asserts, has a nebulous definition of what defines behavior that undermines the league’s “integrity,” because it says “matters that can affect such integrity and public confidence [in professional football] change over time.” The league said Tom Brady hurt its integrity during the Deflategate incident, for instance, and claims Watson did the same.
Robinson agreed, finding that “Mr. Watson acted with a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions by exposing himself (and the NFL) to such public scrutiny and speculation. Mr. Watson’s predatory conduct cast ‘a negative light on the League and its players,’ sufficient proof that he violated this provision of the Policy.”
4. Nevertheless, Watson’s behavior was not considered violent conduct.
Even though she described Watson’s actions as “predatory,” Robinson found it “undisputed that Mr. Watson’s conduct does not fall into the category of violent conduct.” And because Robinson used the NFL’s past player suspensions as a guide, she said “prior cases involving nonviolent sexual assault have resulted in discipline far less severe than what the NFL proposes here, the most severe penalty being a 3-game suspension for a player who had been previously warned about his conduct.”
The NFL wanted to suspend Watson for an entire season, but Robinson rejected that notion because of the above reason and because the league only defined what constituted Watson’s prohibited conduct after the fact — without defining it in the CBA, a notion she called “inherently unfair.”
In the end, Robinson recommended a six-game suspension because “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”