Deshaun Watson suspended for six games for sexual misconduct

Deshaun WatsonCleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, was suspended Monday for six games without pay for multiple violations of the National Football League’s personal conduct policy , according to a 16-page report released by the officer disciplinary committee that looked into his case.

As a condition of his reinstatement, Watson was also ordered to use only club-licensed massage therapists, in club-run sessions, for the duration of his career. He was not fined or required to follow any advice.

Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the NFL and the players’ union to oversee the hearing, found that Watson violated the provisions of the policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person. and undermine the integrity of the NFL.

She described Watson’s conduct as “predatory” and “blatant” and said he did not express remorse, but rejected the NFL’s recommendation to suspend Watson for at least the entire 2022 season. Robinson said felt that there was no basis in the policy for such a severe punishment for what she considered non-violent conduct.

The league and players’ union have three working days to submit a written appeal, which would be handled by commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing. The Players Union said in a statement Sunday evening — before Robinson informed both parties of her decision — that she would not appeal and called on the NFL to uphold the decision.

The NFL has been criticized for inconsistently disciplining players for off-court behaviorand for acting as judge and jury, and the Watson case was the first major test of a new collectively-bargained protocol, adopted in March 2020, aimed at addressing these issues.

Still, many inside and outside the sport said Monday that Watson’s punishment was lenient, with a sports law expert calling it “paltry” and Tony Buzbee, the lawyer who represented many accusers, calling it a “slap in the face”. ”

In a statement, the NFL left open the possibility of appealing the decision, saying it would “make a decision on next steps” while thanking Robinson for his “diligence and professionalism.”

The NFL Players Association was not immediately available for comment. Dee and Jimmy Haslam, owners of the Browns, said in a statement that they respect Robinson’s decision and “sympathize and understand that there have been many people triggered throughout this process.” They said they would “continue to support” Watson.

The decision comes after a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then a quarterback for the Houston Texans, engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior towards women he hired for massages. fall 2019 to March 2021. Watson has denied the allegations and Grand juries in two Texas counties declined to indict him criminally.

The breadth of the allegations against Watson sets this apart from any other personal conduct case that has been reviewed by the league, at a time when the NFL faces heightened scrutiny of its treatment of women. The decision on Watson’s discipline was also highly anticipated, in part because of the substantial investment the Browns made in him, trading top draft picks to acquire his services and then awarding him a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract to become their franchise quarterback.

The Browns anticipated Watson would be suspended for at least part of the 2022 season and structured his contract accordingly, charging the bulk of his $46 million compensation for that year in a signing bonus. He will only lose part of his base salary of around $1 million.

Rising NFL star Watson, 26, was the highest-profile quarterback to be investigated for sexual misconduct since Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers was suspended for six games in 2010 after he summer accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old college student after an encounter at a bar in Georgia. His penalty was later reduced to four games. Like Watson, Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime.

Watson has reached settlements with all but one of the 24 women who have filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty lawsuits were settled in June, and on the eve of Robinson’s ruling, Watson reached settlements with three other women, including Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, according to Buzbee.

The league and Watson’s representatives were unable to negotiate a mutually agreed-upon discipline, putting the matter in Robinson’s hands. She oversaw a three-day hearing in late June, during which the NFL recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and forced to wait at least a full season to reapply, while the union and Watson’s representatives argue. are opposed to a long ban. The personal conduct policy aims to hold those representing the league to a “higher standard”, regardless of how cases are judged elsewhere.

Robinson made it clear in his written decision that his decision was based solely on the information presented to him. She wrote that the NFL, which has no subpoena power, only investigated the allegations of the 24 therapists who sued Watson, interviewed 12 of those women, and relied on four accounts for its findings, as well as documentation and interviews of other knowledgeable people. of these claims.

Robinson wrote that she could not give weight to Watson’s “complete denial” over what she considered credible testimony from the two former sex crimes prosecutors who led the NFL investigation and the four accounts that she said were “substantially corroborated” by evidence. But she also expressed reluctance to set a new league standard with the discipline she pronounced for what she called “non-violent conduct,” which she seemed to define as an absence of physical strength. The NFL had argued that it pushed for an unprecedented suspension because Watson’s conduct had no precedent.

It was the first personal conduct case in the NFL to be heard by a disciplinary officer instead of Goodell, a protocol established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Prior to Robinson’s ruling, the union called the new process a impartial and legitimate while imploring the NFL not to ask Goodell or his representative to reverse his decision on appeal. The ABC gives Goodell the final say.

The decision comes as the review of the NFL’s treatment of women included a congressional inquiry into workplace treatment employees at the Washington Commanders and a six state attorneys general warnedincluding New York, that they will investigate the league unless it responds to allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities.

The NFL has been under the microscope for what was seen as an inconsistency in how it enforces discipline and for what appeared to be conflicts of interest in deciding penalties for its star players.

In 2014, after Goodell was criticized for his handling of suspensions, particularly in domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the The NFL has created its own investigative unit systematize its approach to cases involving allegations of violence against women. Still, the league has struggled to find a cohesive way to adjudicate these cases, as each has its own complexities, especially when no criminal charges are filed. This led critics, sometimes including NFL owners, to argue that Goodell and the penalties imposed by the league were capricious.

In 2017, the running back for the Dallas Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended for six games based on assault allegations that dated back to his college days, leading to questions about the league’s jurisdiction over the incident. New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was first suspended for one game based, as it turns out, on incomplete evidence of domestic violence. When the league again considered the matter, it suspended Brown for six more games.

In contrast, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley last year has been suspended for at least one season to bet on NFL games.

Watson’s case also presented unique challenges: two grand juries declined to press charges, but New York Times report showed that Watson’s use of massage therapists and his questionable behavior were far more extensive than previously known. The volume of accusations and revelations has heightened the scrutiny of the case and led to more calls for a substantial sentence.

“Six games is a pittance,” said Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at the University at Buffalo. “The sheer volume of complaints should force at least a full suspension of the season.”

Drew added that while the NFL might want to seek a longer suspension, it should appeal the decision to Goodell. This would likely lead to charges that the commissioner is in conflict and could lead to a challenge by the union and Watson’s representatives in federal court.

An elite talent in his four seasons on the court, Watson requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season when Houston struggled for a 4-12 record. It was traded to the Browns in March, after a Texas grand jury declined to criminally indict him, for three first-round picks and three additional selections in the NFL Draft. A grand jury in another county then chose not to indict Watson.

Watson can continue training with the Browns during training camp. Pending any potential appeals, his suspension will begin with the Browns’ regular season opener on Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ Game 7, against the Baltimore Ravens, on Oct. 23.

By the time Watson can return from suspension, it will be approximately 22 months since he last played in an NFL game.

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