(AP) — Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games Monday after being accused by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, in what a disciplinary officer said was behavior “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.” Watson, who played for 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 the treatments in 2020 and 2021.
The punishment handed out by the game’s disciplinary officer, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson, fell well short of what the NFL had asked for: an open-ended suspension of at least a year and a fine of at least $5 million for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The NFL has three days to appeal the decision
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson wrote in the conclusion to her 16-page report.
Even though the only discipline in the collective bargaining agreement is a fine or suspension, Robinson mandated as condition of reinstatement that Watson should “limit his massage therapy to Club-directed sessions and Club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career.” She added that Watson must have “no adverse involvement with law enforcement and must not commit any additional violations” of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The NFL Players Association already stated it would abide by Robinson’s ruling. If either side appeals, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the decision, per terms of the CBA. The union then could try to challenge that ruling in federal court.
The league had pushed for a suspension of at least a year and the $5 million fine for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June, two people familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the hearing wasn’t public.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed $230 million, five-year contract, will lose only $345,000 if the suspension is unchanged because his base salary this season is $1.035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is not affected by the suspension.
In a statement, the league thanked Robinson for reviewing “the voluminous record … that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson.” The statement said, “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.”
Watson can continue to practice 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 on Oct. 23 when the Browns play at Baltimore.
He waved toward cheering fans while he and his teammates began their stretching period before practice Monday in Berea, Ohio. “We got your back, Watson!” yelled one.
The Browns first-team offense will be turned over to backup Jacoby Brissett while Watson is sidelined. After learning the ruling was imminent, the NFLPA issued a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying they will not appeal Robinson’s ruling and urged the league to follow suit. “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,” the union said in a statement.
While the NFL pushed for a severe penalty, the union had argued Watson shouldn’t be punished at all because he was not convicted of any crime. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints brought by 10 of the women.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis, or kissing them against their will. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex. This 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, a three-time Pro Bowl pick with the Texans, has seen his playing career stalled by the allegations. He sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade before the allegations came out and has denied all 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 one woman had the fortitude to step forward and make her voice heard,” said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil lawsuits. “Her courage inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have occurred without that one brave voice. One person can make a difference.
Buzbee said that although some of his clients “have strong feelings” about the NFL’s proceedings, he noted that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process “are very different.”
“My role was to advance the cause of my clients, in civil court—nothing more. I’ve done that. I am extremely proud of these women and our legal team’s efforts. The settlements are confidential. I won’t comment further on them,” he said.
On the suspension decision, Buzbee noted that his team was not involved in that process. “We don’t know what was presented to Judge Robinson by the NFL‘s lawyers. We don’t know how the NFL’s case was presented,” he said.
He added that “only a small fraction of those women that we represent were ever spoken to by the NFL’s lawyers. Beyond that we can’t speculate and have no comment on the decision.”
Watson’s high-profile case has renewed scrutiny of the league’s handling of player misbehavior, along with its support for women, and left the Browns wondering if they’ll ever find a franchise quarterback. Since the trade, Watson has been on public display, with fans questioning whether the league had the authority to ban him from playing despite no criminal charges.
The league has been sensitive about its image and handing out the appropriate discipline for Watson after being criticized for its handling of previous cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt among others.
For their part, the Browns were widely condemned for signing Watson. The team has been desperate to find a long-term answer at quarterback—they’ve had a league-high 32 starters since 1999—and many questioned why the team would take on a player with so much baggage.
During his introductory news conference after he was traded to Cleveland, Watson was adamant about his innocence. “I have never assaulted, disrespected, or harassed any woman in my life,” he said at the dais, where he was joined by Browns general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski. “I was raised differently. That is not my DNA. That is not my culture. That is not me as a person.”
He repeated those comments three months later during the Browns’ minicamp, insisting his only goal was to clear his name. However, a week later he settled 20 of the civil lawsuits. Any remaining lawsuits could still go to trial, but not until 2023 after both sides agreed to wait until after the upcoming season.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against the Texans after claiming the team ignored and enabled Watson as he harassed and assaulted them during the therapy sessions. Terms of the settlements were kept confidential.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns—along with several other teams—pursued Watson after the first grand jury declined to indict him. Initially, Watson turned down the Browns. But Cleveland owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam enticed him with the richest fully guaranteed contract in league history to that point.
Watson had other offers, but chose the Browns and waived his no-trade clause to join a team coming off a disappointing 8-9 season. Cleveland completed the deal on March 18 by agreeing to send Houston three first-round draft picks and six selections overall for Watson.
The Haslams said any concerns they had about his character or behavior were alleviated when they flew to Houston along with Berry and Stefanski and spent time talking to Watson. An All-American at Clemson, Watson was drafted by the Texans with the No. 12 pick in 2017. He started six games as a rookie before passing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns in his second year. Watson has developed into one of the league’s elite QBs, throwing for 4,823 yards and 33 TDs in 2020 despite playing on a Texans team that went just 4-12.