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NFL names former New Jersey AG to hear Deshaun Watson appeal

Peter C. Harvey, the former attorney general for New Jersey, will hear the NFL's appeal of the six-game suspension given to Cleveland quarterback Deshaun Watson. (Mel Evans/AP)

The NFL appointed Peter C. Harvey, a former attorney general of New Jersey, to resolve the league’s appeal of the six-game suspension imposed on Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson by an independent disciplinary officer.

The league’s announcement Thursday that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had designated Harvey to hear the appeal came one day after it filed its brief in its bid to increase Watson’s punishment. The league is seeking an indefinite suspension of at least one full season, a fine and required treatment, according to a person familiar with the case.

The NFL argued for such an indefinite suspension to Sue L. Robinson, the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association under the revised procedures for resolving cases under the personal conduct policy established by the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Robinson delivered her ruling Monday, calling Watson’s behavior “predatory” and “egregious” but citing disciplinary precedent for the six-game suspension.

NFL appeals Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension, seeks season-long ban

Either side had the right to appeal to Goodell or a person designated by him. Goodell chose Harvey, now a partner at the Patterson Belknap law firm in New York.

The NFL said in a statement that its appeal “addresses whether, based on the findings made by Judge Robinson, the discipline should be modified to include a professional evaluation and treatment as determined by medical experts, an appropriate fine, and a longer suspension. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Mr. Harvey’s written decision ‘will constitute the full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s), and parties’ to the CBA.”

Harvey has worked with the NFL on other issues, including its diversity policies. The NFL cited his “deep expertise in criminal law, including domestic violence and sexual assault,” for this assignment.

The NFLPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Harvey’s appointment. The union has until Friday to file its written response to the NFL’s appeal. The appeal is to be resolved on an expedited basis, under the terms of the personal conduct policy, and there will be no new evidence or testimony submitted to Harvey beyond what was available to Robinson.

The league’s announcement about Harvey’s appointment came as the attorney for the women who have accused Watson of sexual misconduct in civil lawsuits, Anthony Buzbee, sharply criticized the league’s investigation and the discipline imposed by Robinson, calling on Goodell and the NFL to toughen Watson’s punishment.

“Every victim of sexual assault is watching [Roger] Goodell and the NFL right now,” Buzbee said at a news conference in Houston. “And this idea that Mr. Goodell is going to hand it off to someone else independent, we don’t buy it. Mr. Goodell, what will you do? It’s never too late to do the right thing. That’s what these women and those watching are expecting.”

Of the 25 lawsuits filed against Watson, one was withdrawn and one remains active. The other 23 women agreed to settlements with Watson, Buzbee previously announced.

“We never expected much from the NFL’s investigation,” Buzbee said Thursday. “We never expected much from their flawed process. But, you know, even when you know you’re going to be slapped in the face, that slap still hurts and it still stings.”

Ashley Solis, who filed the first of more than two dozen civil lawsuits against Watson, said she had “received multiple death threats, had angry people approach me in public and have had hundreds if not thousands of people say terrible and vile things about me on the internet.”

She said she “fell into a deep depression” before receiving supportive letters and emails from across the country.

“What do the actions of the NFL say to little girls who have suffered at the hands of someone perceived to have power?” Solis said at Thursday’s news conference. “That it’s not a big deal? That they don’t care? … That’s what I’ve taken from their actions. So instead, I’ll let my actions say something different to those same little girls. … So if anyone has ever tried to abuse their status and overpower you, remind them that they picked the wrong one to try that with. That’s exactly what I am: the wrong one.”

Buzbee said the NFL “bungled” its investigation and disciplinary process. He said that 10 of his clients were made available to the league’s investigators. More would have been available, Buzbee said, if the NFL had been interested. Buzbee said his clients were asked by the league’s representatives what they were wearing during their interactions with Watson.

The league rejected the submission of sworn statements, according to Buzbee, who added that none of his clients was asked to testify at the three-day hearing conducted by Robinson in late June.

The NFL responded Thursday by saying in a statement that its investigators interviewed 49 people, including 12 of the women who sued Watson. The league said it attempted to interview all of the accusers but 12 others “were not made available by their attorney or did not feel comfortable being interviewed.” The NFL also cited its review of “substantial documentary evidence” as part of the process by which it produced a 215-page investigative report.

Even so, Buzbee read a list of negative reactions that he said he had received from his clients to Watson’s six-game suspension. One woman expressed being “disgusted and heartbroken” and made to feel “invisible,” Buzbee said.

“It is a given that the NFL’s disciplinary process is a juggled mess,” Buzbee said. “It has been so inconsistent in the past that it’s hard to take it seriously. And worse yet, everyone knows that the NFL’s record on women’s issues is sketchy and sad. At best, it can be described as inconsistently dismal.”