There are a lot of important clarifications to make when it comes to discussing the ongoing Deshaun Watson situation. For starters, it’s not as black and white as many would think.
By no means is this piece meant to sound like any sort of defense of Watson. Rather, it is to help understand how complex the situation and eventual suspension really is. Nothing about this situation is comfortable, but it is necessary to talk about and dissect what the future could hold for the man whom the Cleveland Browns gave $230 million guaranteed and banked their entire future on. On top of that, we will also compare Watson’s situation to that of other NFL players accused of sexual/domestic crimes, as well as players from other sports to get an idea of how other leagues handle this type of situation.
What We Know
By now, the ongoing saga has been very public. Watson was first accused of sexual misconduct in March of 2021. Over the last 15 months, 22 women have filed lawsuits against the former Texans quarterback for sexual misconduct. All cases against Watson involved massage appointments over the course of 2020 and 2021. While a grand jury declined to indict Watson, the quarterback still faced 22 civil cases. That number climbed to 24 after two additional cases were filed against him.
Since the 24th civil suit was filed against Watson, it was revealed that 20 of the 24 plaintiffs reached settlement agreements with Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin. According to the New York Times, the attorney representing the 24 plaintiffs, Tony Buzbee, said that the “settlements were confidential” and the cases of those 20 women would be dismissed when finalized.
Buzbee also said that he is planning to add the Houston Texans organization as a defendant after it was revealed the team provided a venue in which Watson had several massage appointments while also providing a nondisclosure agreement. Buzbee provided a statement on the matter of adding the Texans organization to the list of defendants.
“In many cases the Texans provided an opportunity for this contact to occur,” the statement reads. “We believe the Texans organization was well aware of Watson’s issues but failed to act. They knew or certainly should have known.”
It has also been reported by the New York Times that Watson used 66 different massage therapists during a 17-month span. Several of those women have said that Watson “engaged in questionable behavior” when seeking out these massages. The report also states that Watson asked several therapists to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which he received from a Texans staff member.
Watson denied the allegations when he spoke with the media for the first time as a Brown on June 14th, saying he “never assaulted, disrespected, or harassed anyone.” The polarizing quarterback also said he doesn’t believe that the reported number of massage therapists he sought out was accurate.
Comparing Watson’s Case To Others
There are several cases that we can look at in direct comparison to that of Watson.
Over the last decade, there are multiple cases, and subsequent punishments, that can be directly compared to Watson’s case.
Former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was twice accused of sexual assault in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Both accusations were settled in court, but Roethlisberger was suspended six games at the beginning of the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Roethlisberger appealed, and his suspension was reduced to four games.
The more comparable cases, though, are those that came after the 2014 collective bargaining agreement. After the Ray Rice incident, the NFL became much stricter and leaned into somewhat of a zero-tolerance policy.
In the past, it was the commissioner who determined the punishment for players, as well as the subsequent appeals. Under the current CBA, each case is handled by a disciplinary officer selected by both parties. Kareem Hunt was suspended eight games after being caught kicking a woman on camera. Hunt was then released by the Chiefs following the incident.
Ezekiel Elliott’s case in 2017 involved him being accused of domestic violence. The Cowboys’ running back was suspended for six games. In a statement following the suspension, it was revealed that Roger Goodell “sought the views of four external advisors to assist him in evaluating potential violations… After reviewing the record, and having considered the views of the independent advisors, the commissioner determined that the credible evidence established that Elliot engaged in conduct that violated the NFL policy.”
However, Kia Roberts, the NFL’s lead investigator recommended that Elliot not be suspended after her interviews with the woman who accused Elliot of domestic violence. Elliot appealed his suspension, and the NFLPA then filed a lawsuit against the NFL. The lawsuit was based on whether Elliot’s suspension was “fundamentally unfair.” This allowed Elliot to play while his appeal was being reviewed. The NFL ended up upholding Elliot’s suspension, which resulted in him being suspended for the remaining five games of the 2017 season.
Now, Watson is far from the first player from across the sports world to be accused of sexual misconduct. Mike Tyson was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old girl and served three years in prison. He was allowed to return to boxing after his release. Both of Tyson’s fights with Evander Holyfield took place after his prison sentence, including the infamous ear-biting incident.
One of the more similar cases to Watson, though, is that of former NBA star Anthony Mason. Mason was accused of two counts of third-degree rape of two teenage girls, aged 14 and 15 years old, respectively, in 1998. He pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of children. However, since there was a lack of DNA linking Mason to any crime, he was given a sentence of 200 hours of community service- a slap on the wrist, for all intents and purposes. Mason wasn’t suspended for any amount of time. He returned to the NBA in 1999 and played in all 82 games.
Staying in the late 1990s, darts star Phil Taylor was charged with indecent assault on two women in their early 20s in 1999. On top of being fined ￡2000, Taylor was stripped of his Member of the Order of the British Empire title (Complex), which rewards contributions to the arts and sciences, as well as works of charity and welfare organizations. Taylor had a long, successful career after the conviction, but there was at least a punishment.
In terms of the most notorious cases of sexual assault in sports, the Baylor football program was front and center for all the wrong reasons. Baylor fired former head coach Art Briles after an investigation revealed numerous accounts and accusations of sexual assault against football players weren’t properly handled. The 51-page report on the investigation states that “When the head coach received information from a staff member regarding potential criminal conduct by a football student-athlete, he did not report the information and did not personally look any further into the matter.”
However, in 2021, Briles wasn’t found guilty of any NCAA violations, and in August of 2021 was cleared to return to coaching in the NCAA ranks. Don’t expect Briles to be coaching at a powerhouse program anytime soon, though. A lot of these cases, unfortunately, seem to end in similar ways- minor punishments, or no punishment at all.
There is a very vocal part of NFL fans that have been asking why the league hasn’t handed down a suspension to Watson. This also stems back to the CBA, and the NFL’s policy on handling legal matters. The league doesn’t interfere with ongoing criminal investigations. Being that the criminal investigation of Watson took the entirety of the 2021 season, they were unable to undergo their own investigation. Considering that no charges were placed on Watson following a criminal investigation, the NFL cannot place him on the exempt list. Had Watson been indicted or charged, the league would have had the ability to place him on the exempt list. Had they gone against the policy and attempted to put him on the list, Watson and/or the NFLPA could have countered with a lawsuit of their own against the league.
The league can, and at the time of writing, are currently investigating Watson through an investigation of their own after a denial by a grand jury to indict the current Browns quarterback. Even then, the league cannot place Watson on the exempt list without having “necessary information” to do so. Watson will all but certainly receive a suspension from the NFL. How long that suspension will be, though, remains up in the air.
In terms of the two teams involved, the Browns can’t be punished for merely trading for Watson and giving him a massive contract. We can ridicule them as much as we want, but they can’t be held liable for any criminal actions. The Texans, however, could also face a penalty of some sort from the league, whether it be a substantial fine and/or loss of draft picks if the league finds that they were complicit in any wrongdoing. There is precedent for this type of punishment. The Saints were fined $500,000 and forced to forfeit their second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013 after it was found that bounties were put out on certain players on opposing teams. The Patriots were fined over $1 million in 2020 and stripped of their 2021 third-round draft selection after their team’s camera crew was caught filming the Cincinnati Bengals sideline in 2019.
As Watsons’s trial is still taking place at the time of writing, multiple leaks are coming out of his camp. One report suggests that Watson and his team are seeking no punishment at all, noting the lack of punishment placed on Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
It has also been reported that Watson’s camp expects a one-year suspension, but also that they would argue that there is no basis for said punishment.
CBS Sports Legal Analyst Amy Dash tweeted that if the NFL were to place the full punishment possible on Watson for each accusation, Watson would be suspended 144 games.
Nothing about this entire seemingly never-ending saga is easy. Not for the Browns. Not for the Texans. Not for the 24 women who have filed the lawsuits against Watson. It is highly doubtful that a 144-game suspension will be handed down. The most likely result is an initial year-long suspension, which will be followed by an appeal process. It is very possible Watson’s suspension gets reduced to eight or 10 games after all is said and done.
This does feel different than other cases, though. Right or wrong, fans move on after some time when it comes to allegations of wrongdoing. The aforementioned Tyson has become a pop culture icon. Mason was an NBA All-Star after pleading guilty.
This feels different, though. With all the bad optics, the Browns seemingly rewarding a man accused of dozens of counts of sexual misconduct, and all of the outrage from fans, this is going to be the elephant in the room for a long time to come.