CLEVELAND, Ohio — The NFL has informed Deshaun Watson and his camp, the NFL Players Association and Disciplinary Officer Sue L. Robinson that it recommends an indefinite suspension for Watson without pay for at least a year, sources confirmed for cleveland.com.
Watson, 26, would be permitted to apply for reinstatement after the season.
The indefinite ban for a minimum of a year under the Personal Conduct Policy was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
If Robinson, who will begin hearing the case on Tuesday and hand down the initial ruling, abides by the NFL’s recommendation, Watson would potentially miss at least the entire 2022 season and hope to get back on the field in 2023. Certain conditions would have to be met, including likely continuing the counseling sessions he acknowledged on June 14 he’s been undergoing.
But once the initial discipline is handed down, either side — the NFL or NFLPA — can appeal to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose word would be final. As long as Robinson determines that Watson has violated the policy and imposes a suspension, fine or both, Goodell or a designee can amend it as they see fit.
The WSJ reported Saturday that during discussions between the NFL and NFLPA, the league has refused to budge on anything less than a one-year suspension for Watson, who sat out all last season in Houston after asking to be traded and while embroiled in the mounting lawsuits. He was paid his $10.54 million salary while being a healthy scratch for all 17 games.
This season, the Browns set his base salary at $1,035 million in a cap-saving move — the signing bonus was $44,965 million — meaning he’d lose only $57,500 for every game he’s suspended.
Watson, accused of sexual misconduct by nearly 30 massage therapists mostly in the Houston area, has maintained his innocence throughout the process, repeating during mandatory minicamp June 14 that ‘I never forced anyone, I never assaulted anyone, so that’s what I’ve been saying it from the beginning and I’m going to continue to do that until all the facts come out on the legal side.”
Twenty-four of the women filed civil suits, 20 of which Watson settled on June 21 not as an admission of guilt, a source said, but to move forward with the process and his career. In response, the NFL said the settlements would have no impact on their disciplinary process. On Monday, one of the four remaining plaintiffs also filed suit against the Houston Texans for allegedly enabling Watson’s behavior.
If Watson is out for the season, he’ll presumably be replaced by backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who’s gone 14-23 in his six-year career. The Browns will add another quarterback, possibly as a backup to Brissett, but are still in the process of trying to trade Baker Mayfield and have no current plans to play him.
Depending on the final terms of Watson’s discipline, his contract could roll until next season, meaning the clock wouldn’t start on his NFL-record, fully-guaranteed $230 million five-year contract until 2023. In that case, the Browns would retain his rights through 2027.
Considering they’re paying him an NFL-high average of $46 million a year, it would be in Browns’ best interests to have him suspended indefinitely as opposed to a finite 17-game ban that would wipe out the first season of the contract.
Under terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL had to inform Watson, the union and Robinson of the recommended discipline at least 10 days before the start of the hearing.
That coincides with the timing of Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio revealing that the NFLPA planned to vigorously fight the punishment largely on the grounds that the league hasn’t come down nearly as hard on NFL owners Bob Kraft of the Patriots, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Daniel Snyder of the Commanders, despite their direct or indirect involvement in allegations of sexual misconduct by themselves or someone in their organization.
The NFLPA has brought in attorney Jeffrey Kessler, their heavy-hitter, to argue Watson’s case. Kessler will undoubtedly cite that two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, and that there’s no concrete evidence of misconduct. Buzbee stated two weeks ago that he planned to file two more suits on behalf of two more therapists, but they haven’t been filed yet and might not be in the wake of the settlements.
Buzbee did say in a statement on Monday however, that he’ll file ‘many’ more cases against the Texans for enabling Watson’s alleged misconduct by arranging rooms at a hotel and providing him with a non-disclosure agreement.
The NFL arrived at its recommendation for the indefinite ban for a minimum of 17 games after a 15-month investigation led by league attorneys Lisa Friel and Jennifer Gaffney, both former prosecutors. They interviewed 11 of the 24 plaintiffs, and Watson on two occasions for a total of four hours. The WSJ reported the NFL will focus on five accusers who have the strongest cases, and back it up with text messages of the their accounts, which they say establish a pattern of disturbing behavior on the part of Watson.
Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, told cleveland.com earlier this month that the NFL would make its final ruling on Watson before the July 27 start of training camp. Depending on the terms of the discipline, Watson might be able to participate in training camp, but he won’t be permitted to play in the preseason games. The hearing can take a couple of days this week, or longer.
Throughout the spring, the Browns have stood by Watson and are still all in on him despite an enormous national backlash. On March 18, Watson chose the Browns from among his four suitors in part because of the groundbreaking contract, and they sent six draft picks to the Texans, including three first-rounders, fourth-rounders in 2022 and 2024, and a third-rounder in 2023.
At that point, many believed Watson would be suspended somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight games, with a chance to reduce that upon appeal.
For comparison’s sake, Ben Roethlisberger was suspended six games in 2010 after a 20-year-old college student accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Georgia nightclub, and had it reduced to four. Browns running back Kareem Hunt was suspended eight games in 2019 for two separate altercations, including one involving a woman. Like Watson, neither had been criminally charged.
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