Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s on-field fate may have gained significant clarity Monday – although the NFL could return his status to an uncertain state in the coming days.
Jointly appointed disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson recommended on Monday that Watson serve a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The NFL Players Association said Sunday that they would not appeal the decision regardless of the outcome. The league has until Thursday to appeal the suspension.
If the suspension holds, Watson, who at one point faced 24 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct before he settled all but one suit, will not be able to play until Oct. 23, when the Browns visit the Baltimore Ravens.
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Here’s what we know:
Robinson’s decision to suspend Watson
In her report, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Robinson found “the NFL has carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report.” Robinson wrote in her conclusion that Watson’s “pattern of conduct is more egregious than any previously reviewed by the NFL.”
However, Robinson determined that by seeking to suspend Watson for at least a year before he could apply for reinstatement, the NFL was “attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice.”
“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,” Robinson wrote.
Beyond his suspension, Watson will not face an additional fine.
Robinson also ruled that Watson cannot hire his own massage therapists and must receive massages from team-appointed masseuses “for the duration of his career.”
The NFL’s case centered on four women. NFL investigators were only able to interview 12 of the 24 women who sued Watson.
Watson had a three-day disciplinary hearing in late June, during which Robinson heard from attorneys representing the quarterback and the NFL.
What happens if NFL appeals Watson’s suspension?
If the NFL decides to appeal the suspension in favor of a longer one, the league would have three days to submit an appeal in writing.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or a designee of his choosing would be tasked with handling the appeal and would “issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute,” according to Article 46 in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
The NFL Players Association released a statement on Sunday night, saying neither it nor Watson would not appeal Robinson’s decision.
“Regardless of her decision, Deshaun and the NFLPA will stand by her ruling and we call on the NFL to do the same,” the NFLPA said.
If Watson were to receive a heavier suspension on appeal, the NFLPA could take the case to federal court, as it did with Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and then-New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Watson settles out of court
As of Monday, Watson had agreed to settlements with 23 of 24 women who filed lawsuits against him while alleging sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.
Watson agreed to settlements in three lawsuits on Monday, while he reached settlements in 20 of the previous suits on June 21.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, the representative of the 24 women suing Watson, did not immediately reveal which civil lawsuit remains against Watson. He told ESPN, however, that Ashley Solis, the first woman to file a lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, was among the most recent three women to have settled.
On July 15, the Houston Texans reached settlements with 30 women who made or were prepared to make claims against the team for its alleged role in Watson’s off-field actions.
A Texans staff member, according to the New York Times, provided Watson with non-disclosure agreements he presented to massage therapists. The Times also reported that the Texans arranged for Watson to stay at The Houstonian, a hotel and spa in Houston, where some of Watson’s massage sessions occurred.
“Although our organization did not have any knowledge of Deshaun Watson’s alleged misconduct, we have intentionally chosen to resolve this matter amicably. This is not an admission of any wrongdoing, but instead a clear stand against any form of sexual assault and misconduct,” Texans owners Janice McNair, Hannah and Cal McNair said in a statement.
How Watson got here
Watson started his NFL career with the Texans, spending five seasons with the club from 2017-21. Watson did not play a game for Houston in 2021 while awaiting a trade.
Watson’s trade demands, which came following the 2020 season, became difficult to be fulfilled once lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct were first filed in March 2021.
Over a span of a month, 22 women filed civil lawsuits against him in 2021. Watson had two more lawsuits filed against him, one on May 31, 2022 and the other on June 6, 2022, bringing the total to 24. An additional lawsuit was filed but dropped by the plaintiff when the judge ruled that she must include her name on the petition.
In early June, The New York Times reported that Watson booked massage appointments with at least 66 women from fall 2019 to spring 2021.
The 66 women, according to The Times, include:
The 24 women who filed lawsuits against Watson.
A woman who sued Watson but withdrew her petition.
Two women who filed criminal complaints but did not sue Watson.
At least 15 massage therapists who, at the request of Watson’s lawyers, released statements of support for Watson.
At least four massage therapists contracted by the Texans.
Five women identified by the plaintiffs’ lawyers during the investigation for their civil lawsuits.
At least 15 other women, whose appointments with Watson were confirmed through interviews and records reviewed by the Times in their report.
What’s next for the Browns
If the suspension remains at six games, Watson will miss games against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 11, the New York Jets on Sept. 18, the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 22, Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 2, Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 9, and the New England Patriots on Oct. 16.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett will take over as Cleveland’s starter while Watson is out, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said last week at the start of training camp.
The Browns acquired Watson in a trade and signed him to a five-year, $230 million deal in March. It is the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history.
The Browns sent the Texans six future draft picks, including three first-round selections.
Watson’s contract was negotiated so his base salary in 2021 is $1.035 million – meaning he will lose at least $345,000 in the six games he will miss if his suspension stands.
Watson’s base salary in the remaining four years of his contract is $46 million.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deshaun Watson suspension: What we know on QB, possible NFL appeal