In one of the most significant disciplinary rulings in NFL history, Cleveland Browns star quarterback Deshaun Watson’s suspension was increased to 11 games with a $5 million fine in a settlement negotiated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
This is a significant increase from the six-game suspension previously levied by NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson and avoids a potential appeal in the court system of what was expected to be a suspension of at least one year if it had been ruled upon by NFL designee Peter Harvey. Watson was ordered to undergo a professional evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program.
Watson is eligible for reinstatement Nov. 28 and his first game back is slated for Dec. 4 against the Texans at NRG Stadium. The Texans traded Watson to the Browns this spring in exchange for three first-round draft picks and he was signed to a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract.
The punishment for Watson is a consequence of an alleged pattern of sexual misconduct in sessions with female massage therapists and violations of the NFL personal conduct policy as ruled upon by Robinson previously. The Georgia native and three-time Pro Bowl selection was also ordered to undergo treatment mandated by the league under its personal conduct policy.
“I’m grateful that the disciplinary process has ended and extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received throughout my short time with the Browns organization," Watson said in a statement. "I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made. My focus going forward is on working to become the best version of myself on and off the field and supporting my teammates however possible while I’m away from the team. I’m excited about what the future holds for me in Cleveland.”
Watson's fine and contributions from the NFL and Browns will create a fund of $7 million to support the work of non-profit organizations across the country to educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors and related causes.
"Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL," commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine and a more substantial suspension. We are grateful to Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in addressing these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion."
This decision avoids a potential appeal by the NFL Players Association, as previous suspensions have been delayed and ultimately upheld by judges in previous disciplinary matters involving Ezekiel Elliott and Tom Brady.
Watson has maintained his innocence and settled 23 of 24 civil lawsuits filed by plaintiffs' attorney Tony Buzbee on behalf of massage therapists who alleged that Watson behaved inappropriately.
Watson had previously said he had no regrets, and a lack of stated public remorse was cited by Robinson in her decision to suspend him.
“As we have previously conveyed, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the NFL and NFLPA structure awaiting a final decision and we have respected the process," Browns owners Jimmy Haslam and Dee Haslam said in a statement. "Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, we understand this is a real opportunity to create meaningful change and we are committed to investing in programs in Northeast Ohio that will educate our youth regarding awareness, understanding, and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community.”
Harvey, a former New Jersey Attorney General and former prosecutor with an extensive background investigating sexual assault and domestic violence cases, had been assigned to rule on the NFL's appeal.
Harvey helped write the current personal conduct policy adopted in the new collective bargaining agreement two years ago. Goodell had called publicly for Watson to be suspended indefinitely, and to miss at least one year before possible reinstatement.
Goodell had made it adamantly clear at an NFL owners' meeting that he had wanted the suspension to be a lengthy one.
"There were multiple violations that were egregious and it was predatory behavior," Goodell said. "Those are things that we always felt were important for us to address in a way that’s responsible."
The language Goodell used was contained in Robinson's 16-page ruling (which can be viewed at the bottom of this article) in which she also took issue with the league escalating its request for an unprecedented punishment without proper notice while also admonishing Watson's behavior and a described pattern of graphic sexual misconduct in his sessions with female massage therapists. In addition to Watson's settled civil lawsuits, his former employer, the Texans, reached confidential financial settlements with 30 women who had accused Watson of inappropriate behavior.
"Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL," Robinson wrote. "While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players."
Goodell's rationale was based on Robinson's conclusion that Watson committed four violations of the personal conduct policy with nonviolent sexual assault of four massage therapists presented at a disciplinary hearing. Although characterized as nonviolent, previous cases of sexual misconduct have triggered suspensions in the range of 4-6 games.
"I think that’s the case,’' Goodell said. "That’s what the facts say.’"
Under NFL collective bargaining agreement rules governing appeals, Harvey was required to act in an expedited manner with no deadline. Instead, a deal was reached.
Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, Harvey's decision "will constitute the full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s), and parties."
According to the personal conduct policy, the appeal will be: (i) processed on an expedited basis; (ii) limited to consideration of the terms of discipline imposed; and (iii) based upon a review of the existing record without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered. No additional evidence or testimony shall be presented to or accepted by the Commissioner or his designee. Any factual findings and evidentiary determinations of the Disciplinary Officer will be binding to the parties on appeal, and the decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, will be final and binding on all parties.
"It’s a part of the CBA that two parties have the right,” Goodell said. “Either party could certainly challenge and appeal that and that was something that we thought was our right to do, as well as the NFLPA. So, we decided it was the right thing to do."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.