Watson suspended 11 games, fined $5 million in sexual misconduct case
By Jenny Vrentas and Ken Belson
After the NFL appealed what many thought was a lenient six-game suspension, Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct in massage appointments, agreed to be suspended for 11 games in a settlement, the league said in a statement Thursday.
Watson will also pay a $5 million fine and must undergo evaluation by behavioral experts, followed by a treatment program. The fine, as well as $1 million each from the league and the Browns, will be donated to groups that work to prevent sexual assault.
The agreed upon penalties, among the most severe in league history, come as the NFL has faced heightened scrutiny over its treatment of women and after backlash to the initial suspension handed down by an arbitrator earlier this month, which some said wasn’t harsh enough to deter others and did not address the scope of accusations against Watson.
In a statement released through the team Thursday, Watson said he was “grateful” that the disciplinary process had ended. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused,” he said. “I take accountability for the decisions I made.”
The settlement was less than the indefinite suspension the NFL sought but nearly doubled the one initially imposed by a third-party disciplinary officer this month.
The decision ended one of the most high-profile tests of the league’s personal conduct policy, a case that involved a star quarterback in his prime who was accused of serially harassing and assaulting women but who was never charged with a crime.
In the 18 months since the first allegations surfaced, Watson was traded by the Houston Texans for a bevy of draft picks to the Browns, who signed him to a $230 million fully guaranteed contract, prompting questions about whether teams were taking the accusations seriously.
The league had sought a season-long suspension of Watson, but the settlement heads off a potential challenge of the discipline in federal court — a route the NFL Players Association has taken, with mixed success, in other player suspensions.
Watson’s initial discipline, which did not include a fine or a recommendation for counseling, was issued on Aug. 1 by Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge jointly appointed by the league and the players’ union to rule based on the results of the league’s investigation and arguments made by both sides during a three-day disciplinary hearing.
Robinson found that Watson had committed multiple violations of the personal conduct policy by engaging in what she described as “predatory” and “egregious” conduct. But she also suggested that she was limited in her authority to mete out stricter discipline by the NFL’s policies and past rulings.
Two days after her ruling, the NFL appealed the decision as per a new process agreed to by the league and the players’ union in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. As it had argued to Robinson, the NFL again sought to bar Watson from playing for at least a year, after which he would have to make a case for reinstatement.
“We’ve seen the evidence,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters at a meeting of NFL team owners in Minneapolis this month. “She was very clear about the evidence, she reinforced the evidence that there was multiple violations here and they were egregious and it was predatory behavior. Those are things that we always felt were really important for us to address in a way that’s responsible.”
Goodell picked Peter C. Harvey, an NFL adviser and former New Jersey attorney general, to hear the league’s appeal of the initial ban. As Harvey considered the appeal, settlement talks between the league and the players’ union continued. Before starting the Browns’ first preseason game in Jacksonville, Florida, last week, Watson issued his first apology “to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation” in a brief interview with a member of the Browns’ preseason broadcast team.
“The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position, I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character,” Watson said.
In its appeal for harsher discipline, the NFL had pointed to Watson’s lack of remorse, a factor Robinson also cited in her ruling. Watson, who has steadfastly denied the accusations against him, settled this summer 23 of the 24 lawsuits filed against him by women who said he harassed or assaulted them in massage appointments.
Watson will continue to be eligible to participate in practices and preseason games. His suspension will begin Aug. 30, well before the Browns’ regular-season opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 11.
Watson can return to the Browns’ facility on Oct. 10, the midway point in his suspension. He is eligible for reinstatement on Nov. 28, the day after the Browns’ 11th game. He will be eligible to play in the Browns’ 12th game, on Dec. 4, against Watson’s old team, the Houston Texans.
After the first accuser filed a lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, Goodell opted not to place him on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would have granted Watson paid leave as the allegations were investigated. Watson sat out the 2021 NFL season after asking that his former team, the Texans, trade him.
The team did so in March 2022 after a Texas grand jury declined to charge Watson. At least four teams recruited Watson’s services, and the Browns won what became a bidding war, at least in part because they were willing to guarantee his entire contract. Watson’s base salary is about $1 million this season, a provision that ensured that Watson would forfeit only a small portion of his overall compensation this year for games missed while serving a suspension.
The deal led to questions about whether the Browns, Falcons, Panthers and other teams bidding for Watson’s services were dismissive of the allegations made against him. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has said that he supports Watson but last week told reporters that he would respect the league’s judiciary process.