The NFL is appealing a disciplinary official’s decision to suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, giving commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates authority to impose a more severe penalty.
Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson issued her ruling Monday after Watson was accused by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments while playing for the Houston Texans.
In his 16-page report, Robinson described Watson’s behavior as “more egregious than any previously reviewed by the NFL.”
Robinson’s punishment, in her first case since being jointly designated by the league and the NFL Players Association, fell far short of the indefinite suspension of at least one year the league was seeking.
So the NFL on Wednesday exercised its right to appeal, under the collective bargaining agreement.
The players’ union has until the end of Friday to respond in writing. The union could challenge the appeal ruling in federal court, setting the stage for a protracted fight.
This is the first time since the new collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2020 that the league and the NFLPA have used a jointly appointed disciplinary officer to determine personal conduct policy violations. In the past, Goodell has served as judge and jury to impose penalties on players.
By appealing, the NFL gives that power back to Goodell, who can choose someone else to impose any punishment.
A league official told The Associated Press before Watson’s three-day disciplinary hearing concluded in June that the NFL wanted to avoid an appeal.
But the league proceeded with one amid backlash from some fans. Other factors include Watson’s lack of remorse, which Robinson noted in his report.
The NFL advocated an unprecedented punishment and wanted to fine Watson at least $5 million, a person familiar with the discussions told the AP on condition of anonymity because the hearing was private.
Watson, who played four seasons with the Texans before sitting out last season and then being traded to the Browns in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment or assault during massage treatments in 2020 and 2021. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints filed by 10 of the women.
Robinson concluded that Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy: sexual assault; conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or compromises the integrity of the NFL.
He refused to suspend Watson for a full year based on precedent and current league policy. But Robinson concluded that a longer suspension might be warranted if it was already outlined in the personal conduct policy.
“While it may be entirely appropriate to more harshly discipline players for nonviolent sexual conduct, I do not think it is appropriate to do so without noting the extraordinary change this position heralds for the NFL and its players,” Robinson wrote in his report.
Watson continued to practice with the Browns while awaiting resolution of her case, raising questions about the league’s handling of player behavior off the field, inconsistencies in its personal conduct policy and its general support of women.
The Browns have also been in a state of limbo, not knowing when or if Watson will be able to play this season.
The Browns traded three first-round picks to the Texans for the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback and signed him to a five-year, $230 million contract.
Watson will lose just $345,000 if the suspension doesn’t change because his base salary this season is $1.035 million.
AP’s Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed.