Browns QB Watson given 6-game ban
Ex-federal judge says league wanted season suspension
Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games Monday after being accused by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, in what a disciplinary officer said was behavior “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”
The punishment handed out by the game’s disciplinary officer, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson, fell well short of what the NFL had asked for: an open-ended suspension of at least a year for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Watson, who played for four seasons with the Texans before being traded to the Browns in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during the treatments in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL has three days to appeal the decision.
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson wrote in the conclusion to her 16-page report.
As a condition of his reinstatement, Robinson mandated that Watson only use massage therapists approved by the team for the rest of his career. And she said Watson must have “no adverse involvement with law enforcement and must not commit any additional violations” of the personal conduct policy.
The NFL Players Association has said it would abide by Robinson’s ruling. If the NFL appeals, Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the ruling on an appropriate punishment, per terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The union then could try to challenge that ruling in federal court.
The league had pushed for a suspension of at least a year and a $5 million fine for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June.
The NFL presented a 215-page report based on dozens of interviews, including testimony from four of 12 women interviewed by league investigators. Robinson determined that Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy: sexual assault; conduct posing a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.
Robinson said the league acknowledged at the hearing that its recommended punishment was “unprecedented” and she concluded the NFL should not change its standards of discipline for nonviolent sexual assault without giving fair notice to players.
“Defining prohibited conduct plays a critical role in the rule of law, enabling people to predict the consequences of their behavior,” she wrote. “It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”
Robinson rejected Watson’s denials of wrongdoing and considered his “lack of expressed remorse” to be an aggravating factor.
“As to mitigating factors, he is a first offender and had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events. He cooperated in the investigation and has paid restitution,” she wrote.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract, will lose only $345,000 if the suspension is unchanged because his base salary this season is $1.035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is not affected by the ban.
Watson can continue to practice and play in exhibition games before his suspension begins the first week of the regular season. He can return to practice in Week 4 and would be eligible to play on Oct. 23 when the Browns play the Ravens in Baltimore.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints brought by 10 of the women.