By ROB MAADDI
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games on Monday after two dozen women in Texas accused him of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, in what a disciplinary officer called behavior “more egregious than any other reviewed by the NFL.”
The penalty imposed by the game’s disciplinary officer, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson, fell well short of what the NFL had requested: an indefinite suspension of at least a year for violating the policy of personal conduct of the league.
Watson, who played four seasons with Houston before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during treatment in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL, which has three days to appeal, said it is reviewing Robinson’s decision and deciding its next steps.
“While this is the largest sentence ever handed down to an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s behavior is more egregious than any other previously reviewed by the NFL,” wrote Robinson in the conclusion of his 16-page report. .
Even though the only discipline in the collective agreement is a fine or suspension, Robinson demanded as a condition of reinstatement that Watson “limit his massage therapy to club-directed sessions and club-approved massage therapists” for the remainder of his career.
She added that Watson must have “no negative involvement with law enforcement and must not commit additional violations” of the Personal Conduct Policy.
The NFL Players Association said it would respect Robinson’s decision. If either party appeals, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the decision, in accordance with the terms of the CBA. The union could then try to challenge this decision in federal court.
The league had sought a suspension of at least a year and the $5 million fine for Watson, 26, during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. discussions on condition of anonymity. because the hearing was not public.
The NFL submitted a 215-page report based on testimony from four of the 12 women interviewed by league investigators and 37 other third parties. Robinson determined, based on the league’s burden of proof, that Watson violated three provisions of the Personal Conduct Policy: sexual assault; conduct presenting a real danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that compromises or endangers the integrity of the NFL.
Robinson noted that the NFL acknowledged during the hearing that the recommended sanction was “unprecedented” and concluded that it should not change its disciplinary standards for non-violent sexual assault without giving players fair notice. .
“Defining prohibited conduct plays a vital role in the rule of law, allowing 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 unfair to alter penalties for such conduct after the fact.”
Robinson dismissed Watson’s denials of wrongdoing and considered his “lack of expressed remorse” an aggravating factor.
“In terms of mitigating factors, he is a first-time offender and had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events. He cooperated with the investigation and paid restitution,” she wrote.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract, will only lose $345,000 if the suspension remains unchanged, as his base salary this season is $1.035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is unaffected by the suspension.
It was the first case for Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct – a role previously held by Goodell.
Watson can continue to train 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 Oct. 23 when the Browns play in Baltimore.
He waved to cheering fans as he and his teammates began their stretching period before practice Monday in Berea, Ohio. “We’ve got your back, Watson!” one shouted.
After learning the decision was imminent, the NFLPA issued a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying it would not appeal and urged the league to follow suit. The union had argued that Watson should not be punished at all because he had not been convicted of a crime.
Two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson over criminal complaints filed by 10 of the women.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl pick with the Texans, missed the 2021 season after demanding a trade before the allegations were released.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. A woman alleged that Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson denied any wrongdoing, insisting any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. He publicly insisted his goal was to clear his name before agreeing to confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
“This case started because a woman had the courage to come forward and speak out,” said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents women in civil lawsuits. “Her courage inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have happened without her courageous voice. One person can make a difference.
Buzbee said that while some of his clients “have strong feelings” about NFL procedure, he noted that civil procedure and NFL disciplinary procedure “are very different.”
Watson’s high-profile case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misconduct, as well as its support for women, and left the Browns wondering if they’ll ever find a quarterback. of franchise.
Since the trade, fans have wondered if the league had the authority to bar Watson from playing despite the lack of criminal charges.
The league has been sensitive to his image and imposed appropriate discipline on Watson after he was criticized for his handling of prior cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, quarterback Pittsburgh running back Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt, among others.
The Browns were widely condemned for signing Watson. The team is desperate for a long-term answer at quarterback — they’ve had 32 starters, a league-high since 1999 — and many have wondered why the team would face a player with so much baggage.
Watson has been adamant about his innocence.
“I have never assaulted, disrespected or harassed a woman in my life,” he said during his first press conference with the Browns.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against the Texans after they claimed the team ignored and cleared Watson as he harassed and assaulted them during therapy sessions. The terms of the settlements were confidential.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns and several other teams sued him after the first grand jury declined to indict him.
Initially, Watson turned down the Browns. But Cleveland owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam lured him with the richest fully guaranteed contract in league history, up to that point.
Watson had other offers but chose the Browns and waived his no-trade clause to join a team coming off an 8-9 season. Cleveland completed the deal on March 18 by agreeing to send Houston three first-round picks and six overall picks for Watson.
All-American at Clemson, Watson was drafted by the Texans as the No. 12 pick in 2017. He started six games as a rookie before passing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns in his sophomore year.
Watson has become one of the league’s elite QBs, throwing for 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2020 despite playing on a Texas team that went 4-12.
Katie Luechauer, 32, of Cleveland, said the six-game suspension was good.
“I thought it was going to be a few games less. He’s a franchise quarterback. He can make or break us, and I hope he will,” she said.
Jason Hamlin, 49, of Folsom, Calif., a Browns fan who was in Cleveland to visit family, said he was reassessing his allegiance to the team after the Watson trade. He said a one-year suspension would be appropriate and that six games was not long enough “for the problems he was in”.
“It was the greatest Browns thing ever,” Hanlin said of the trade, referring to the team’s long history of incompetence. “It’s a questionable organization at this point, with questionable ethics that make me not want to root for them.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, and Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed.
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