Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games Monday for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following sexual misconduct allegations made against him by two dozen women in Texas, they said. two people familiar with the decision.
The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been made public. Watson, who played four seasons with Houston before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by massage therapists alleging sexual harassment and assault during their dates in 2020 and 2021.
After learning the ruling was imminent, the NFL Players Association released a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying they will not appeal disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s ruling and urging the league to do the same.
“Every player, owner, business partner and interested party deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be clouded by the whims of the League office,” the union said in a statement.
If either party appealed, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee will make the decision, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The union could then try to challenge that ruling in federal court.
While waiting for the ruling, Watson has been in training camp with the Browns. He continued to take the majority of the reps with the first-team offense, which will be given to backup Jacoby Brissett while he is sidelined.
The league had pushed for an indefinite suspension of at least a year and a $5 million fine for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing with Robinson in June. The NFL Players Association argued that Watson should not be punished at all because he was not convicted of any crime.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints filed by 10 of the women.
This was the first case for Robinson, a former US district judge who was appointed jointly by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct, a position previously held by Goodell.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Texans, has seen his playing career stalled by accusations that he acted inappropriately with women during massage therapy sessions he scheduled through social media. He was left out of the 2021 season.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. A woman alleged that Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing and insists any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. She publicly insisted that her goal was to clear her name before reaching confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
Watson’s high-profile case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misconduct, along with its support of women, and left the Browns wondering if they’ll ever find a franchise quarterback.
Since the trade, Watson has been on public display, with fans questioning whether the league had the authority to ban him from playing even though he had no criminal charges.
The league has been sensitive about its image and appropriately disciplined Watson after being criticized for his handling of previous sexual misconduct cases involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt, among others.
For their part, the Browns were widely criticized for signing Watson. The team has been desperate to find a long-term answer at quarterback (they’ve had 32 starters in the league since 1999) and many questioned why the team would take on a player with so much background.
During his introductory news conference after he was traded to Cleveland, Watson was adamant about his innocence.
“I have never assaulted, disrespected or harassed any woman in my life,” he said on stage, where he was joined by Browns general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. “I was raised differently. That’s not my DNA. That is not my culture. That’s not me as a person.”
He repeated those comments three months later during the Browns’ minicamp, insisting his only goal was to clear his name. However, a week later he settled 20 of the civil lawsuits. The remaining lawsuits could still go to trial, but not until 2023 after both sides agreed to wait until after the next season.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against the Texans after claiming the team ignored and allowed Watson to harass and assault them during therapy sessions. The terms of the agreements were kept confidential.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns, along with several other teams, pursued Watson after the first grand jury declined to indict him.
Initially, Watson turned down the Browns. But Cleveland owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam lured him in with a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal.
Watson had other offers, but he chose the Browns and waived his no-trade clause to join a team coming off a disappointing 8-9 season. Cleveland completed the deal on March 18 by agreeing to send Houston three first-round draft picks and six picks overall for Watson.
The Haslams said any concerns they had about his character or behavior were eased when they flew to Houston with Berry and Stefanski and spent time talking with Watson.
Watson, an All-American at Clemson, was drafted by the Texans with the No. 12 pick in 2017. He started six games as a rookie before throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Watson has become one of the elite QBs in the league, throwing for 4,823 yards and 33 TDs in 2020 despite playing on a Texans team that went just 4-12.