In an emotionally charged introductory press conference, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson vehemently denied allegations levied against him by 22 women who have accused him of inappropriate conduct that includes allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
Watson was asked dozens of questions in regard to his character and how he plans to conduct himself moving forward. He is currently facing 22 active civil lawsuits with no current intentions to settle them. Two separate Texas grand juries declined to charge the three-time Pro Bowl selection and Georgia native with any crimes after he faced a total of 10 criminal complaints.
"I understand the seriousness of the allegations," Watson said at the Browns' training complex a week after being acquired in a trade from the Houston Texans and signed to a record-setting $230 million fully guaranteed contract. "I never assaulted any woman, I never disrespected any woman, and I never harassed any woman in my life. My mom and my aunties didn't raise me that way. Over the course of my life, that's not in my DNA. As far as the details of actually the things they're alleging, I can't speak on that because there's an ongoing investigation. In the future, once everything is resolved, I will sit down and love to talk about it. ..
"I understand that there's going to be a stain that's probably going to stick with me for a while. I've never done the things these people are alleging. I'm going to continue to fight for my name and clear my name.”
Browns general manager Andrew Berry addressed the allegations in an opening statement.
"We as an organization know this transaction has been very difficult for many people, particularly women in our community," Berry said. "We realize it has triggered a range of emotions. The nature of the allegations weighed heavily on all of us. We do have confidence and faith in Deshaun as a person."
Berry said the Browns researched Watson thoroughly for five months, including independent investigators in Harris County to get "unbiased, comprehensive perspective on the allegations,' and used 'third-party legal counsel to analyze all the information."
Berry said that the Browns didn't contact the 22 women on advice of legal counsel to not interfere with the legal process.
"I'll say the investigators that we hired were able to get a full perspective of all the cases," Berry said. "I'm not going to go into necessarily the details of everything the investigators did, but they got a full perspective for all the criminal and civil cases."
'We understood a lot of people would not be comfortable with it and would criticize it," Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said. "We are confident in time that he will gain their trust.'
Toward the end of the press conference, Berry was asked directly if he believes in Watson's innocence and replied: "We believe in Deshaun the person."
Browns owner Dee Haslam added later in a Zoom press conference that her and her husband, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, spoke with their daughters and other people about this decision.
"We respect our fans and their feelings," Dee Haslam said. "This is a really tough subject. I think we knew this could trigger a lot of emotions. I think the conversations coming out of this have been helpful to us to understand the issues.
"This has been a very hard and difficult journey for our families. It was really hard. We had to work really hard to get comfortable with the decision. We knew it could trigger emotions from individuals who have been through sexual abuse. Our compassion is very deep."
When asked if there is a zero tolerance policy on Watson to avoid these issues in the future, Jimmy Haslam replied: "We expect very high performance levels on and off the field from our players and Deshaun knows and understands that."
Watson was asked dozens of questions in regard to his character, history, and how he plans to move forward. He is currently facing 22 active civil lawsuits with no current intentions to settle them. Two separate Texas grand juries declined to charge Watson with any crimes after he faced 10 criminal complaints.
"I understand the whole circumstances is very difficult, especially for the women's side of the fans in this community, Watson said. "I'm not naive to that. I know these allegations are very, very serious. But I've never assaulted any woman. I've never disrespected any woman. I was raised by a single parent mom who has two aunties, who's a sister, and that's who raised me.
"I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone and everything around me. So, I've always defended that, and I will continue to stand on that. I just want the opportunity to be able to show who I really am in the community and be hands on and help people and serve other people."
Watson was asked if he would be open to getting counseling and he doesn't sound inclined to pursue that avenue, but he wasn't completely unwilling to have conversations.
"It's hard for me to say the counseling part because I don't have a problem," he said. "I don't have an issue. I'm willing to talk to people about certain situations to make sure I'm not getting back into this."
Dee Haslam said she believes counseling would probably be beneficial for Watson or anyone generally.
"I hope that would be something he would consider," she said.
Watson said he will earn the trust of the community with his actions, not his words.
"The biggest thing for me as a person is I'm genuine, I'm a hard working servant leader in the community who loves to give back," Watson said. "I want to show that eventually and get out in the community."
Watson said he has no intentions to settle the 22 civil lawsuits at this time.
"That's not my intent," he said. "My intent is to continue to clear my name."
Watson was asked if he would change anything about his actions.
"I don't have any regrets," Watson said. "The things off the field that came up caught me by surprise, I never did anything that these people are alleging. I continue to work to be a better player, a better person and a better son."
Berry said on the advice of counsel the Browns were advised against reaching out to 22 complainants to not interfere with the legal process and criminal investigation.
Asked about not contacting the women who made allegations on advice of legal counsel, “We got very strong recommendations' to not contact the women to not interfere with the legal process," Jimmy Haslam said.
Berry said team is not 'naive' to the fact that many aren't comfortable with Watson.
"We do have faith in him as a person," Berry said. "We aren't naive in that there is still work to do. We do have faith that Deshaun Watson will not only meet the expectations, but exceed them."
Berry reiterated the investigators Browns hired gave team full perspective on the cases, wouldn't say if they spoke to the 22 complainants.
"I will refer back to my statement," Berry said, adding that investigators gave 'independent and unbiased comprehensive perspective."
Watson was asked why he wanted to be traded from the Texans months after signing a four-year, $156 million contract.
The Browns agreed to send three first-round picks, a 2023 third-round selection, a 2022 fourth-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round choice to the Texans in exchange for Watson and a 2024 sixth-round selection.
”It’s hard to get too far into the details," Watson said. "It was time for us to part ways. I was honest with the organization.They were honest with me and we came to the conclusion this was the best situation."
Watson led the NFL in passing yards two seasons ago.
"You're getting a strong leader who loves the work who is going to compete super hard and a guy that is going to push everyone to their full potential so we can win a lot of Super Bowls," Watson said.
A Brazoria County grand jury in Texas on Thursday declined to charge Watson after being presented with a single criminal complaint with an allegation of sexual misconduct in a massage therapy session.
"After a careful and thorough review of the facts and evidence documented in the reports prepared by the Brazoria County Sheriff's Office and the Houston Police
Department, as well as hearing testimony from witnesses, the Grand Jury for Brazoria County has declined to charge Deshaun Watson with any crimes. Accordingly, this matter is closed," Brazoria County District Attorney Tom Selleck said in a statement.
This wasn't a new complaint, and it stemmed from a 2020 massage therapy session and an allegation of inappropriate behavior. A courthouse official indicated that it was a fast process.
Previously, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Watson on nine allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual assault from massage therapists. In a social media post and after the grand jury in Harris County declined to return any indictments, Watson denied all wrongdoing. His lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has acknowledged previously in a press conference that sexual acts happened that were consensual in nature. Watson is still facing 22 active civil lawsuits and gave a third deposition Tuesday.
"We are thrilled that the Brazoria County grand jury cleared Deshaun Watson of the one remaining criminal allegation," Hardin said in a statement. "We’ve known all along what people who learn the facts also know - Deshaun committed no crimes. In fact, two separate grand juries have now found that there wasn’t even probable cause to believe he committed a crime. Once the Harris County cases were concluded, we were informed that Brazoria County intended to present their case to a grand jury on Wednesday March 23. We, and the complainant, were offered the opportunity to provide any information we wanted to the grand jury. It’s important to note that both we and the Cleveland Browns knew this grand jury presentation was pending and attempted not to discuss it publicly until it was completed.
"Now that the criminal investigations and two different grand jury presentations have been completed, I hope the public and the media will take to heart the closing statement from the Brazoria County district attorney’s letter stating: “Accordingly, this matter is closed. It is time to let the civil litigation proceed at a normal pace and for Deshaun Watson to take his place as the quarterback of the future for the Browns. I am fully confident that the Cleveland community will discover that Deshaun Watson is not just a great quarterback but also an incredibly decent person they will be proud to have represent their city. "
Hardin said that this criminal complaint stemmed from a massage therapy session conducted in Pearland, a suburb of Houston. That is why the Houston Police Department office referred it to Brazoria County. The Brazoria County district attorney, per Hardin, waited until after the Harris County grand jury rendered its decision and then went forward with a separate criminal complaint.
Traded to the Browns and signed to a $230 million fully guaranteed contract for the largest total guaranteed deal in NFL history. Watson was at the Browns' facility for a physical and meetings with coaches.
Watson was pursued by the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers before agreeing to terms and being traded to Cleveland.
On Sunday, the Browns issued a statement from owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam.
"We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson," the Haslams wrote. "We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision. Our team's comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved.
"He was humble, sincere, and candid. In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. Those in-depth conversations, the extensive evaluation process, his dedication to being a great teammate and devotion to helping others within the NFL, within the community, and through his charitable initiatives provided the foundation for us to pursue Deshaun."
Berry said the team has been in touch with the NFL regarding any potential discipline.
"We've had an open line of communication with the NFL and will cooperate with the investigation as appropriate," Berry said. "They have their own process that they have to work through. We'll cooperate with that. We'll work with them, and when they render a decision, we'll obviously respect it."
After the legal decision, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email: "We have been closely monitoring all developments in the matter which remains under review of the personal conduct policy."
In a previous email, McCarthy said that the personal conduct policy into Watson remains pending. If charged with a crime, Watson was expected to be placed on the commissioner's exempt list and wouldn't be eligible to play.
"Any transaction would have no effect on the NFL's ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson," McCarthy wrote. "Nor would it affect his status under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Personal Conduct Policy. If the league's investigation determines that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy, discipline may be imposed pursuant to the policy and the CBA."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790