A retired federal judge soon will make a decision about Deshaun Watson’s future in the NFL after a hearing scheduled for Tuesday about whether he violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
The Cleveland Browns quarterback has been sued by 24 women who accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021, when he played for the Houston Texans. Twenty of those 24 lawsuits recently ended with confidential settlements.
But the NFL still wants him to punish him with an indefinite suspension of at least a year. Now comes the hearing.
What is this hearing about?
The private hearing seeks to answer two basic questions:
► Did Watson violate the league’s personal conduct policy?
That policy aims to hold players and personnel to a “higher standard” and make sure they conduct themselves “in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.”
► If he did violate the policy, what punishment does he deserve in terms of suspensions or fines?
The NFL wants him suspended at least a year and recently made its recommendation known to the judge hearing the case and the NFL Players Association. Watson has denied wrongdoing and his representatives are expected to oppose any punishment pushed for by the NFL, which has the burden of establishing that Watson violated the policy.
This is the first hearing of this sort under the terms of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
At least 10 days before the hearing, the NFL was to have produced any transcripts or audio recordings of witness interviews, any expert reports and court documents obtained or prepared by the NFL as part of its investigation, and any evidentiary material referenced in its investigative report that was not included as an exhibit, according to the collective bargaining agreement.
In this case, such evidence could be extensive after 24 lawsuits and 10 complaints to Houston police.
Who is the judge and what could she do?
Retired federal judge Sue Robinson is the disciplinary officer jointly selected and compensated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. She will hear the case and determine whether Watson violated the league’s policy. She could decide no violation occurred, or she could decide Watson violated the policy and deserves punishment, such as a suspension.
Robinson was the first woman to serve as chief judge for the District of Delaware after being nominated to the U.S. District Court there in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush. She retired in 2017. Before serving there, she was an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware.
She has presided over a variety of cases in her career, including antitrust cases, patent cases, bankruptcies and copyright and trademark disputes.
What happens after this hearing?
Robinson could take some time to make a decision. If she decides Watson deserves discipline, her decision could be appealed by either side. That appeal then will be decided by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee. In other words, if Robinson decides Watson deserves a six-game suspension, the league could appeal and make the case Watson deserves the indefinite suspension it recommended in the first place. Or the NFLPA could appeal to reduce his punishment.
Goodell could make the call either way with a final, binding decision.
But if Robinson finds no violation and gives no punishment, that decision is not subject to appeal.
The collective bargaining agreement calls for any appeal to be in writing within three business days of the disciplinary officer’s decision.
What is the expected argument from the NFL?
It only takes one case to justify discipline against Watson, and here there were at least 24. Some of those cases are stronger than others. To believe Watson did nothing wrong, as he has said, one has to believe that all 24 women are lying and out to get money under the advice of their shared attorney, Tony Buzbee.
The women describe a pattern that includes pieces of circumstantial evidence and contemporaneous corroboration in at least some cases, according to the lawsuits. For example, the first plaintiff, Ashley Solis, received an apology by text from Watson after a massage in which she said he exposed himself to her and intentionally touched her with his genitals. Watson also admitted in a pretrial deposition in May that Solis ended the massage and was “teary-eyed” with “watering” eyes but that he didn’t know why. She said it was because she was crying after being scared by his conduct.
Watson also often insisted using a small or medium-sized towel for his draping in massages. Sometimes he insisted on bringing his own towel. This is unusual and considered by the plaintiffs as evidence of his intent to turn these encounters sexual by being able to better expose his genitals to them. That intent was not shared by the plaintiffs, according to them, though Watson's attorneys have said three of the encounters were consensual and initiated by the women after the massage.
What is the expected argument from Watson and the NFLPA?
Two grand juries in Texas looked at a combined 10 complaints against Watson and declined to indict him on criminal charges. They want that to be the end of the story, but the NFL conduct policy does not require criminal charges in order to bring discipline. A lack of indictment doesn’t mean he was declared innocent of questionable or disturbing conduct.
Watson’s representatives have claimed the women aren’t credible, such one they said falsely denied she had been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years. They also have pointed to those who stayed in contact with Watson to various degrees after they say they were troubled by his behavior.
In terms of discipline, Watson’s representatives can point to the comparatively lighter discipline or no discipline at all for NFL owners who got in trouble, such Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. In 2019, Kraft was charged with two counts of solicitation of a prostitute, but those charges were later dropped because of a technicality. Kraft was not suspended by the league.
The personal conduct policy states that “ownership and club or league management have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline when violations of the Personal Conduct Policy occur.”
What is a likely outcome?
Given the sheer number of complaints, this is an unprecedented case under the personal conduct policy. That could mean the league gets the indefinite suspension it wants, leaving open the possibility that the suspension could grow longer than a year if more cases come to light.
A year-long suspension would mean a second straight season of him being sidelined under the cloud of these allegations. He was not suspended last season but did not play a game after he requested a trade from the Texans and then was hit with the first 22 lawsuits in March and April 2021.
In March 2022, the Texans traded him to the Browns, which gave him a record guaranteed contract of $230 million over five years.
Does Watson have additional recourse to fight a suspension?
Yes, he could file a lawsuit in court, but that is considered a longshot play. Courts generally don’t like to interfere with proceedings whose rules and processes were collectively bargained and agreed to beforehand by both sides.
Contributing: Mike Jones
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deshaun Watson faces NFL disciplinary hearing with suspension likely