NFL seeks ‘significant’ suspension of Deshaun Watson


NFL seeks 'significant' suspension of Deshaun Watson

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The NFL will argue that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should receive a “substantial” suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct guidelines, several people familiar with the case said Friday.

The league will “likely” seek a full-season suspension for Watson, a person on Watson’s side in the case said on Friday. One person familiar with the league’s view on the case cautioned against being “cautious” about giving an exact length of the suspension the NFL will seek at this point. But this person also said, “Significant would be the correct term.”

Watson faces 24 active civil lawsuits from women alleging him of sexual misconduct. Allegations include making inappropriate comments, exposing himself and forcing his penis onto women’s hands during massage therapy sessions. Watson and his attorney Rusty Hardin have denied the allegations. Two Texas grand juries declined to charge Watson with a felony. The NFL is preparing to present the findings of her investigation to Sue L. Robinson, the former US District Judge who is the disciplinary officer co-appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association under the current version of the Code of Conduct.

The league hopes the entire disciplinary process, including resolution of a possible complaint against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates, will be complete by the time training camp begins, a person familiar with the matter said. The Browns are scheduled to open training camp on July 27.

Deshaun Watson is facing the 24th trial alleging sexual misconduct

“Like I said, I’ve never attacked anyone or I’ve never harassed anyone or I’ve never disrespected anyone,” Watson said on Tuesday at a press conference at a Browns offseason practice session. “I’ve never forced anyone to do anything.”

As part of a process revised in the last collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA, concluded in 2020, the first decision on a prospective suspension or fine will be made by Robinson, now an attorney in Wilmington, Del., after he resigned from the bank in 2017.

The case would be closed with no appeals open if Robinson determined that there was no violation of the Personal Conduct Policy. If it determines that there has been a violation of the policy and imposes a penalty, either side can appeal to Goodell. The NFLPA pushed for revisions to the CBA’s personal conduct policy following clashes, some of which spilled into courtrooms in previous disciplinary proceedings following lawsuits filed by the union and players. Previously, Goodell was responsible for both the initial disciplinary decision and deciding on appeals.

It’s not clear if Robinson will hold a quasi-trial before making her decision. She declined to comment this week, referring questions to the league and union.

The NFL’s investigation was conducted by Lisa Friel, the former chief of the sex crimes prosecutor for the Manhattan Attorney’s Office, who is the league’s special investigative counsel.

Friel interviewed at least 11 of the women accused of Watson, who a person familiar with the investigation said are being represented along with other women by attorney Tony Buzbee. She checked relevant available documents. NFL officials interviewed Watson over several days in Houston.

“I can’t control that,” Watson said this week of the NFL’s disciplinary process. “I met with the NFL a few weeks ago and did whatever they asked me to do. I have truthfully answered every question the NFL has asked me. I’ve spent hours with the people who brought her down. And that’s all I can do is just be honest and tell them exactly what happened. I know they have a job, so I have to respect that. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do, is cooperate. And they have to make a decision [that’s] the best for the league.”

Deshaun Watson NFL investigation almost complete, Roger Goodell says

Hardin confirmed that he is involved with the union in representing Watson in the NFL process, but declined to comment further on the league proceedings.

According to a person with knowledge of the matter, the league has made a presentation to NFLPA and Watson representatives on the case. This led those on Watson’s side to conclude that the NFL will seek a significant penalty.

It’s not clear whether Major League Baseball’s two-year suspension of pitcher Trevor Bauer as part of its domestic violence policy will serve as a precedent for the NFL’s proposed suspension of Watson, another person familiar with the league’s view said in the last few weeks. But the NFL is aware that the length of Bauer’s suspension could affect public expectations and reactions to the Watson case, this person said.

Non-NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler has intervened in the case. A person familiar with the NFL’s view said the league is concerned that Kessler will not plead any disciplinary action at all.

Kessler declined to comment Friday, referring questions to the NFLPA. The NFLPA could cite the lack of criminal charges, although NFL policy allows disciplinary action to be taken in the absence of such charges.

The NFLPA’s defense of Watson will raise questions about owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys not being suspended from the league for incidents involving them and their teams were involved. This was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the case after the first time reported by Pro Football Talk.

The league “ideally” wants the entire process, including resolution of any appeals, to be complete by the time training camp begins, said a person familiar with the NFL’s perspective, adding the disclaimer that the approach taken by Kessler and the NFLPA possible to delay the procedure.

This first case to be resolved under the new disciplinary system is a high-profile affair. One person on Watson’s side wondered if Goodell might hesitate to overturn the neutral referee’s disciplinary decision in the first case.

The league and NFLPA may eventually reach an agreement to bar any appeal or further legal action by Watson.

The Browns struck a deal with the Houston Texans for Watson this offseason, signing a new contract worth a guaranteed $230 million over five seasons. Watson did not play last season and was placed on the Texans weekly inactive list.

Any suspension would be unpaid based on Watson’s salary of $1.035 million for the 2022 season. The NFL could seek a fine on top of Watson’s lost salary. The league could also dictate that additional disciplinary action could be taken if new information emerges.

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