Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused of sexual misconduct during massage treatments by more than a dozen women, was suspended for six games on Monday for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and was not fined, according to a person with knowledge of the proceedings who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the NFL and the players union to oversee player discipline, issued the decision. The league and players union have three business days to file a written appeal, which will be handled by Commissioner Roger Goodell or a representative of his choice. The players union announced on Sunday night, before Robinson informed both sides of her decision, that it would not appeal and urged the NFL to uphold the ruling.
It will have been about 22 months since Watson last played in an NFL game by the time he is eligible to return from suspension.
The decision follows a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then the quarterback of the Houston Texans, engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior toward women he hired for massages between the fall of 2019 and March 2021. Twenty-four women sued Watson in civil court, and 20 of them were settled in June. According to ESPN, Watson has also reached settlements with three of the four remaining women. Watson denied the claims and grand juries in two Texas counties declined to charge Watson criminally.
Sex offenses, actions that endanger the safety and well-being of another person, and anything that undermines the league’s integrity are all prohibited by the league’s personal conduct policy.
The Browns made a significant investment in Watson, acquiring him with top draft picks and then signing him to a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract as their franchise quarterback. Watson, an elite talent, requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season, when Houston went 4-12.
After a first Texas grand jury declined to charge him criminally, he was traded to the Browns in March for three first-round picks and three additional draft picks. A second grand jury also decided not to charge Watson.
The league and Watson’s representatives were unable to reach an agreement on a discipline, so Robinson made the initial decision. She presided over a three-day hearing in late June during which the NFL recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and required to wait at least a full season before reapplying, while the union and Watson’s representatives argued against a lengthy suspension.
The NFL’s first personal conduct case was heard by a disciplinary officer rather than Goodell, as part of a protocol established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. Before Robinson’s decision, the union called the new process “impartial and legitimate,” and urged the NFL not to ask Goodell or his designee to overturn her decision on an appeal.
The decision on Watson’s discipline was widely anticipated, not only because of the Browns’ investment in him, but also because the breadth of allegations against Watson distinguished this case from any other personal conduct case considered by the league. The decision comes amid a congressional investigation into the workplace treatment of female employees at the Washington Commanders, as well as a warning from attorneys general in six states, including New York, that they will investigate the league unless it addresses allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities.
When the first accusers’ lawsuits were filed in March 2021, the NFL launched its investigation into Watson. The league’s investigators, who lack subpoena power, met with ten of the women who filed lawsuits against Watson, as well as contemporaneous witnesses to verify their accounts and other women who worked with Watson.
The Browns expected Watson to be suspended for at least part of the 2022 season and structured his contract accordingly, allocating the majority of his $46 million salary for this year to a signing bonus. He will only lose a portion of his roughly $1 million base salary.