CLEVELAND — Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended following the NFL’s investigation into allegations made by two dozen women who accused him of sexual assault and harassment. Watson is suspended for six games, with no fine, after the NFL and NFLPA's jointly appointed disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson issued her ruling today. The NFL has not decided yet whether it will appeal.
If Watson does indeed serve the first six games of the season, he will make his debut on the road against the Baltimore Ravens on October 23. He stands to lose $345,000 this season, based on his base salary.
The NFL released the following statement on the ruling:
"We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer, for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson. We appreciate Judge Robinson’s diligence and professionalism throughout this process.
Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”
Hours after the NFL's statement, the Browns released their own.
"Throughout this process, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the newly created and agreed upon process for the NFLPA and the NFL to defer to the objective Judge Sue. L. Robinson to comprehensively review all information and make a fair decision. We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process. We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue to the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him."
Head coach Kevin Stefanski was the first Browns leader to speak the the media following the decision. Stefanski said multiple times Watson is "looking to be the best version of himself."
"I'm confident Deshaun [Watson] will make good decisions on and off the field," he said.
News 5 reporter Camryn Justice asked Stefanski about how female fans should feel today.
"I feel incredible empathy for anyone who's impacted by this decision," he said. "It's something that I don't take lightly."
Watson and the NFL Players Association spoke out ahead of the expected decision regarding possible discipline for Watson. The NFLPA put out a statement “in advance of Robinson’s decision” stating that it would stand by the decision of the ruling.
In advance of Judge Robinson’s decision, we wanted to reiterate the facts of this proceeding. First, we have fully cooperated with every NFL inquiry and provided the NFL with the most comprehensive set of information for any personal conduct policy investigation. A former Federal Judge - appointed jointly by the NFLPA and NFL - held a full and fair hearing, has read thousands of pages of investigative documents and reviewed arguments from both sides impartially. Every player, owner, business partner and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be tarnished based on the whims of the League office. This is why, regardless of her decision, Deshaun and the NFLPA will stand by her ruling and we call on the NFL to do the same.
This has been a long offseason for Browns fans following the acquisition of the team's franchise quarterback, who arrived in Berea a legally innocent yet oft-accused man. In March, two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints stemming from the allegations.
Watson has denied all wrongdoing.
A pair of Deshaun Watson's accusers sat down with Soledad O'Brien in May to give their side of the story on HBO. Both women said it was a slap in the face when the Browns offered Watson a record-breaking $230 million contract to be traded to the team.
In the wake of those two additional women joining the civil suit, the New York Times reported that Watson utilized 66 women for massages over a 17-month period and had help from the Houston Texans, including the use of nondisclosure agreements, in making appointments.
On June 21, Watson lawyer Tony Buzbee announced he had reached an agreement to settle 20 of the 24 civil lawsuits filed against him. On Aug. 1, he announced that three of the final four lawsuits had also been settled.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Watson, who sat out the 2020 season after demanding a trade, came to Cleveland to restart his career over several other teams after initially telling the Browns he wasn’t interested in playing for them.
When the Browns introduced Watson to Cleveland in front of the media in March, both general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski acknowledged that the transaction was “difficult for many people, particularly women in the community,” but said after what they learned through the investigation, they felt good about Watson as a person and if they didn’t they wouldn’t have made the trade.
Since arriving on the practice fields in Berea for OTAs on May 25, the quarterback has been hard at work managing his on-the-field performance. Some time has passed since his last game was played in January 2021, but he has been often present for workouts and training both at the Browns facilities in Berea as well as with outside trainers like esteemed QBs coach Quincy Avery.
On June 14, Watson spoke to reporters for the first time since March, telling Cleveland media he fully complied with the NFL's investigation.
"I met with the NFL a couple weeks ago, and I did everything they asked me to do. I answered every question truthfully that the NFL asked me. I spent hours with the people they brought down, and that's all I can do — be honest, tell them exactly what happened," Watson said. "I know they have a job and I have to respect that, and that's what we wanted to do was cooperate, and they have to make a decision best for the league."
Watch that interview:
Watson's is the first case to be heard by Robinson as part of the new league discipline policy agreed upon in the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2020. As per the CBA, violations of the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy are initially determined by a jointly appointed disciplinary officer after serving as the hearing officer.
Rusty Hardin, who has also defended Watson in the many civil lawsuits against him, represented the quarterback in the league hearings with Robinson, also supported by the NFLPA.
Watson's hearings began on June 28 and lasted three days before wrapping on June 30. The NFL was responsible for presenting evidence that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy, and, after doing so, both sides were given around two weeks to submit post-hearing briefs to Robinson, which the CBA maxes out at five pages, single-spaced. The CBA outlines three days as the deadline after the hearing to file the briefs but also allows the timelines to be extended by mutual agreement, which occurred in Watson's case, and the briefs were set to be filed by July 12.
Robinson, as expected, took her time in her first case of this nature and after three weeks, decided on her ruling, which per the CBA "will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement with respect to that dispute."
Watson will not appeal the suspension. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has three days to appeal the ruling.
With the six games suspension, the Browns will look towards backup Jacoby Brissett to lead the team until Watson's return in Week 7. In the meantime, Watson will be able to continue practicing with his team through training camp and could play in any of the Browns three preseason games, should they choose to play him.
Watson's suspension will go into effect on Sept. 5, when preseason training camp has wrapped for all 32 teams. He will then be barred from team facilities and activities until the second half of his suspension, where he'll be then permitted to ramp up activity in a limited scope before his return, including participating in individual workouts, attending team meetings, and having individual meetings with offensive staff.
Fan reaction was immediate, as you'd expect. Here's a poll from the News 5 Twitter Page.
What do you think about Deshaun Watson's 6-game suspension?— News 5 Cleveland (@WEWS) August 1, 2022
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center says it is disappointed by the decision and released the following statement:
The 6-game suspension given dangerously mirrors the flaws in our criminal justice systems and sends a grave message to our communities. Far too often those in positions of power and celebrity who commit violence against others are not held accountable for their actions.These ongoing headlines are triggering for so many. To survivors, we say we see you and we believe you. Your story matters. Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is available 24/7/365 online or by calling/texting (216) 619-6192.
The National Organization for Women says it is "not surprised" at the ruling and released the following statement:
"It is unacceptable, insulting, and dangerous—but not surprising—that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will face merely a 6-game suspension—with no fines—following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made by more than two dozen women.
The NFL and the multi-billion-dollar sports industry have a vested interest in enabling sexual misconduct, assault, and violence. They even wrote it into Deshaun Watson’s $230 million contract!
The Browns knew that their star recruit would be suspended for at least part of this year’s season because of his record of sex offenses, and so they restructured his contract to make the majority of his $46 million first-year payout a “signing bonus,” not tied to him playing actual games...
Shame on the Cleveland Browns for rewarding Deshaun Watson and shame on the NFL for perpetuating a system where money talks, and women aren’t heard."
- Browns acknowledge Watson signing 'difficult for many people'
- 'We’re all about the work': How the Browns are navigating Deshaun Watson's legal issues as OTAs begin
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