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Deshaun Watson suspended 11 games, fined $5 million under settlement

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson speaks to the media after the team announced he had reached a settlement with the NFL and will serve an 11-game unpaid suspension and pay a $5 million fine following accusations of sexual misconduct. (Joshua Gunter/AP)

Under a settlement reached between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for the first 11 games of the 2022 season and fined $5 million for violating the league’s personal conduct policy based on allegations of sexual misconduct.

The agreement announced Thursday ends the disciplinary process, forestalling a ruling by an attorney whom NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell designated to resolve the league’s appeal of Watson’s original suspension. Sue L. Robinson, a former U.S. district judge who is the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the league and NFLPA, initially imposed a six-game suspension Aug. 1.

“I’m moving on with my career, with my life, and I’ll continue to stand on my innocence,” Watson said in a news conference at the Browns’ training facility. “Just because settlements and things like that happen doesn’t mean that a person is guilty for anything.”

Watson’s suspension is without pay, costing him $632,500 of his $1.035 million base salary for this season. He signed a five-year contract worth a guaranteed $230 million with the Browns when they completed a trade with the Houston Texans for him in March. The settlement also requires Watson to undergo a professional evaluation and treatment plan.

The NFL and the Browns will add $1 million each to Watson’s $5 million fine, and the $7 million will be used to support organizations working to prevent sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

According to one person familiar with the NFL’s view, the league backed off its insistence for a full-season suspension and agreed to the settlement because this resolution was “significant, definitive, immediate and final.” The NFL stressed the treatment portion of the settlement.

“Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” Goodell said in a statement Thursday. “This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine, and a more substantial suspension.”

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Watson issued a public apology in a televised interview Friday before playing in the Browns’ opening preseason game in Jacksonville, Fla. But in Thursday’s news conference following the announcement of the settlement, he said he had “always stood on not disrespecting or sexually assaulting anyone.”

Asked why he had apologized if he maintains that he did nothing wrong, Watson said: “For everyone that was affected about the situation. There was a lot of people that was triggered.”

Watson said he “can’t speak on the fairness” of the discipline in the settlement, adding that he had an opinion but would keep it to himself. His agent, David Mulugheta, wrote on Twitter that Watson “has always stated he is innocent of sexual assault. Nothing has changed in what he said.” Watson “also said he is remorseful,” Mulugheta wrote.

Thursday’s settlement comes nearly two months after Robinson conducted a three-day hearing. She then considered a post-hearing brief from each side, and she ruled this month that Watson violated the conduct policy and that the NFL proved its case on all three points that it raised, including that Watson committed sexual assault (as defined by the league as unwanted sexual contact with another person).

Robinson also ruled that Watson, as the league contended, violated the policy with conduct that posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person and by undermining or putting at risk the integrity of the NFL. She called Watson’s conduct “predatory” and “egregious.” But Robinson also wrote that Watson’s sexual assault was nonviolent. She was bound, she said, on the length of the suspension by previous NFL discipline for nonviolent sexual assault.

Under a revised version of the personal conduct policy established by the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, both the league and the union could have appealed Robinson’s decision to Goodell or a person he designated. The NFLPA and Watson announced on the night before Robinson’s ruling was delivered that they would abide by her decision, urging the league to do the same. The NFL instead exercised its right to appeal Aug. 3, and Goodell chose Peter C. Harvey, the former attorney general of New Jersey, to hear the case.

Each side submitted a brief, and Harvey was to have made his decision without additional testimony or evidence beyond what was available to Robinson. The league sought an indefinite suspension of at least one full season, a fine and treatment in its appeal, according to a person familiar with the situation.

According to the CBA, a decision on the appeal would have represented the “full, final and complete disposition of the dispute.” But if Harvey had decided to increase Watson’s suspension to a full season, that language might not have prevented Watson and the NFLPA from challenging the appeal ruling in federal court, renewing the courtroom clashes between the league and the union over player discipline. The union managed to delay but not overturn previous suspensions involving quarterback Tom Brady, then with the New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott by going to court.

“We’re going to support [Watson] in every way possible during the suspension and during what will hopefully be a long career with the Cleveland Browns,” team owner Jimmy Haslam said at a news conference Thursday.

Haslam said he was “absolutely, 100 percent” comfortable with having Watson on the team and later added: “We believe Deshaun Watson deserves a second chance.”

Asked whether the Browns still would make the trade for Watson that they made in March, General Manager Andrew Berry said: “Yes, we would. … We do believe that Deshaun has strong positive qualities.”

Haslam’s wife, Browns co-owner Dee Haslam, said the team has “tremendous empathy for the women involved.” When pressed on the discrepancy between the portrayals of Watson’s remorse and his renewed statements that he had done nothing wrong, she said: “Counseling takes time. … He’s making progress, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

More than two dozen women filed civil lawsuits against Watson based on his conduct in massage therapy sessions. Of the 25 lawsuits filed, Watson reached settlement agreements with 23 of the women, according to their attorney, Anthony Buzbee. One lawsuit was withdrawn, and one remains pending.

Deshaun Watson suspended for six games by disciplinary officer

Buzbee also announced settlements by 30 women with the Texans. One woman had filed a lawsuit accusing Watson’s former team of enabling his alleged behavior.

Buzbee was critical of Thursday’s NFL disciplinary settlement, saying in a statement that Goodell “is nothing more than a paper tiger” and adding: “The message today to all victims is clear, if you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away. The NFL has certainly demonstrated that its ownership and the organization doesn’t care.”

Watson has not been charged with a crime. The personal conduct policy allows for a player to be disciplined without criminal charges.

Last season, the Texans placed Watson on their game-day inactive list on a weekly basis, and he did not play in a game. He was not suspended and was paid his entire $10.5 million salary.

Watson’s suspension officially begins Aug. 30. He may return to the Browns’ facility Oct. 10 and may resume practicing Nov. 14. Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski said Watson will not play in either of the Browns’ remaining two preseason games, reiterating that backup Jacoby Brissett will serve as the starter throughout Watson’s absence. Watson’s suspension leaves him eligible to play for the Browns beginning with a Dec. 4 game in Houston.

“I have to do what’s best for Deshaun Watson at the end of the day,” Watson said Thursday. “And I know what happened. I was in those situations. But I have to continue to push forward and keep moving forward.”