PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Although Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was not charged with a crime by two separate Texas grand juries, the three-time Pro Bowl selection remains under a personal conduct policy investigation that could result in a potential suspension or fine.
The NFL has decided that Watson will not be placed on the commissioner exempt list due to the grand juries in Harris County and Brazoria County declining to indict the Georgia native on 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct.
Watson is still subject to potential discipline, and there is no specific timetable on when or if his status will be determined, according to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Watson, traded to the Browns from the Texans, was signed to a record-breaking $230 million fully guaranteed contract.
Lisa Friel, a former chief prosecutor in the Manhattan sex crimes unit, has been investigating Watson and hasn't interviewed him yet while his 22 civil lawsuits remain unresolved with no settlements being discussed at this time.
“The civil cases were in play over the last year,” Goodell said at the NFL owners meetings at The Breakers. “The only thing that’s changed is the criminal element has been at least resolved, and that was an important element in the context of the commissioner exempt list as discussed with the Players Association. So, that was important.
“If the criminal had proceeded, that more than likely would have triggered the commissioner exempt. I think at this point, the civil case in and of itself would not do that. If there’s a violation of the personal conduct policy, that may trigger something, but that more than likely trigger some kind of discipline in some fashion.”
Under NFL collective bargaining agreement rules, a discipline officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association makes a decision on a potential suspension. Watson remains eligible to participate in all offseason activities, and coach Kevin Stefanski said that he does expect him to participate in the Browns' offseason program.
“We’re going to let the facts lead us, find every fact we can,” Goodell said. “At least there is a resolution from the criminal side of it. Our investigation hopefully will have access to more information. We will speak to everyone who can give us a perspective.”
Watson didn't play in any games last season and was paid his entire $10.54 million salary. Since he had requested a trade, the Texans decided not to have him play and to not risk potential injury and any effect on his value.
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.
Watson received a $1 million base salary and a $45 million signing bonus, for salary-cap reasons, and it also protects the bulk of his compensation from losing large game checks to a suspension. The NFL can impose a fine as a disciplinary measure, too.
“The personal conduct policy is very serious to us and it does not need a criminal (charge),” Goodell noted. “A decision will be made on whether there should be any discipline and what it is.”
The NFL has precedent for punishing players who are facing civil litigation that weren't charged with a crime. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused of a sex crime, had a six-game suspension reduced to four games. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, also investigated by Friel on a domestic violence allegation, was suspended for six games.
“The personal conduct policy is something that is very important to us, so the personal conduct policy does not need a criminal violation to be a violation of the personal conduct policy,” Goodell said. “So, they recognize that that’s something we’re going to pursue. We’re going to make sure that we get to the bottom of the facts and make sure how it applies to the personal conduct policy. That’s where we are at this point. When we get to that, a decision will be made whether there should be discipline and if so what is it.
“Our people are working on it. Obviously, these are serious charges. We’re looking at this seriously. We now have obviously, at least on the criminal side of it, obviously there are still civil charges that are going on, so our investigators hopefully will have access to more information and that will be helpful obviously at getting to the conclusion of what are the facts and was there a violation of the personal conduct policy, but that determination will be made by a joint discipline officer established by the NFLPA and the NFL. She will make that decision when the facts are all in and we’ll see. There’s no time frame on that.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790