The league challenged the penalty issued Monday by a third-party disciplinary officer following a hearing into charges that Watson engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior towards two dozen women he hired for massages . The NFL is arguing for an indefinite suspension with the possibility of reinstatement after one year, according to a person with knowledge of the league’s appeal who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The league also recommended a fine and treatment for Watson and raised concerns about his lack of remorse in the brief it filed Wednesday, the person said.
The union, which declined to comment, has until the close of business on Friday to respond.
Following a process agreed to in the collective agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association, the appeal will be heard by commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choice. The league did not immediately say who would oversee the appeal, which will be heard on an “expedited” basis.
There is no timeline set out in the CBA for a decision to be rendered.
Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the NFL and players’ union to oversee the disciplinary hearing, found that Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person and undermining the integrity of the NFL. She suggested in her 16-page report that Watson’s conduct, which she called “predatory” and “flagrant,” might have merited a harsher punishment, but was limited by the policies of the league and its disciplinary history.
Watson denied the charges against him, and two Texas grand juries declined to indict him. He settled all but one of the 24 lawsuits brought against him by women he hired for massages. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said they would ‘continue to support’ the quarterback they awarded a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract in March.
Robinson said in his report that Watson’s denials did not appear credible and that he showed no remorse.
The players’ union said before Robinson’s decision it would not appeal, but after the suspension was announced on Monday, the NFL said it would review its findings and “make a decision on next steps” in the three business days that the CBA allows for disputes.
The six-game suspension was criticized by Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing most of Watson’s accusers, as well as sports law experts and advocates for victims of sexual abuse. The league had argued to Robinson that Watson deserved at least a one-year suspension as the union fought for a lesser sentence.
Robinson said his decision to suspend Watson for six games was based on penalties the league has imposed in other cases of gender-based violence.
The league began its investigation of Watson in March 2021, when Ashley Solis, a licensed massage therapist in Houston, filed the first complaint against him. The women said he assaulted or harassed them during massage appointments in 2020 and 2021, when Watson played for the Houston Texans. In a brief filed with Robinson, the league wrote that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.”
Watson’s case was the first to be dealt with under a new process established in the ABC 2020 By appointing an arbitrator to oversee the review of the facts and decide the initial sanction, the review aimed to stem criticism of power disproportionate and sometimes capricious of Goodell in the disciplinary process.
If Robinson had discovered that Watson had not violated the personal conduct policy, there would have been no discipline and neither party could appeal. But she concluded there was enough evidence, including accounts from four women that she said were “substantially corroborated”, to support multiple violations of the policy by Watson.
According to the ABC, decisions by Goodell, or his representative, are “full, final and complete” and binding on all parties, including the player.
The union can challenge the league’s appeal in federal court, as it has with player conduct decisions in the past. A notable case came in 2015, when quarterback Tom Brady challenged his four-game suspension in the so-called Deflate scandal. A district court judge sided with Brady, saying Goodell exceeded his authority by suspending the quarterback for his role in an alleged scheme to remove air from game balls to improve their grip. Goodell’s decision, however, was upheld in 2016 by a federal appeals court panel that upheld his broad power to discipline players.
Michael LeRoy, an arbitrator who teaches labor law at the University of Illinois, said the CBA’s language made a “stark point” about the finality of the process agreed to by both parties.
“I think it’s pretty much airtight against judicial nullification,” LeRoy said. “Courts are very deferential to findings of fact as well as to findings of breach of contract or not. So I think Watson is just going to take on the windmills if he challenges that in federal court.
Watson can continue training with the Browns during training camp as the call continues.