Where things stand with the myriad civil lawsuits filed against Deshaun Watson

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·9 min read

On Dec. 28, 2020, just days before the Houston Texans' season finale, a woman identified in court filings as Jane Doe No. 3 alleged that she met quarterback Deshaun Watson in a Houston office building for the purpose of giving him a massage.

It allegedly went bad quickly, with Doe No. 3 saying Watson wore just a small towel and kept directing the massage to focus on his "inner thighs," "inner glutes" and soon enough, even more personal areas. She said she felt "threatened and intimidated." She was "afraid" of what the much bigger Watson could do to her. She said she was visibly shaking and Watson noticed.

That’s when, she alleged in a civil lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas last week, “Watson coerced [her] to move her mouth toward his penis, forcing Plaintiff to perform oral sex on him. Plaintiff did not consent to any of this conduct.”

Afterward, Doe No. 3 said she was “confused and terrified” and wished she “had been more courageous.” She was left “shaking, violated and ashamed.” She was so panicked, she says she defecated on herself. Her mom came and picked her up at the office.

The allegation, which Watson has denied through a blanket statement, is troubling, to say the least.

It also isn’t isolated.

Deshaun Watson's future, reputation cast into doubt by extensive allegations

It somewhat mirrors an alleged incident from Aug. 17, 2020. Jane Doe No. 9 says in her own civil lawsuit that she met Watson that day at a Houston massage spa, where the two of them, at the quarterback’s insistence, were alone in a room. The session was similar to what Jane Doe No. 3 alleges, only more crude. It ended, Doe No. 9 stated, with Watson wrapping his legs around her head in an attempt to force oral sex. She says she broke free and he went on to masturbate in front of her.

A little over a week ago, Watson held a pristine reputation. He was known for not just brilliant quarterback play, but leadership, community service and professionalism. When he demanded a trade out of Houston this offseason, half of the NFL plotted on how to make a deal.

Now, after 16 separate lawsuits have been filed by massage therapists from three different states, each one detailing alleged behavior that ranges from crude to criminal, where Watson plays next year is the least of his concerns.

It’s whether he plays at all.

Fourteen separate lawsuits have been filed against Deshaun Watson by massage therapists from three different states, with allegations that range from crude to cruel. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Fourteen separate lawsuits have been filed against Deshaun Watson by massage therapists from three different states, with allegations that range from crude to cruel. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is a well-worn legal axiom that if you have the facts on your side, you pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, you pound the law. If you have neither, you pound the table.

Thus far, Watson and his team have pounded the table.

His NFL agent noted in a tweet that while sexual assault is real and “victims should be heard, offenders prosecuted,” it’s also important to remember that “individuals fabricate stories in pursuit of financial gain often. Their victims should be heard, and those offenders also prosecuted.” (In terms of sexual assault allegations, fabrications are actually rare, according to FBI statistics.)

Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has called the accusations made in civil lawsuits “meritless,” but has not offered any details on how or why (he says a full response will come this week). He did issue a statement Tuesday complaining about how the "anonymity" of the plaintiffs is make investigating their claims nearly impossible.

“Anonymity is often necessary as a shield for victims but opposing counsel has used it as a sword to publicly humiliate Deshaun before the truth‑seeking process can even begin," Hardin said.

Hardin further provided a statement from Watson’s business manager stating that Jane Doe No. 3 asked him during a January phone conversation for $30,000 to keep silent about her encounter, which Doe No. 3 allegedly said was “consensual.”

Meanwhile, Watson himself has called the accuser’s attorney “publicity-seeking” and said he’s never treated a woman poorly.

As of now, the allegations are just that. They are contained in civil lawsuits, not criminal complaints. There has been no police investigation and whether the authorities get involved is yet unknown.

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Challenges of potentially prosecuting Watson

Even if they do, proving the above will not be easy, especially months after the alleged acts. Watson is, of course, considered innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law.

“In the criminal context, the standard of proof is much higher [than in a civil case],” said New Orleans-based defense attorney Craig Mordock, who specializes in sexual assault cases. “There has to be a lot more evidence. Typically the way police look at these things is to seek contemporaneous documentation.”

Namely, did the women tell anyone at the time? Did they write anything down, take pictures of injuries or see a doctor? What, if anything, did Jane Doe No. 3, for example, tell her mother upon being picked up? What, if anything, did Watson write in direct messages to the women?

“The most important thing in cases where you are accusing sexual assault is documentation, documentation, documentation,” Mordock said.

There is no evidence attached to the complaints, and in many cases, key details— specific addresses, proof of DMs, names, etc. — remain sparse although not completely non-existent. In other cases there are some precise dates and both general and exact locales.

If, for example, Watson wasn’t in Atlanta on March 4 and 5, 2021, as Jane Doe No. 8 alleged, it would be fairly easy for Watson to refute. If he didn’t rent a suite at the Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa on Aug. 28, 2020, as Jane Doe No. 2 alleged, then he could likely prove it.

Criminal prosecution is just one danger for Watson. Civil courts require just a preponderance of evidence, or a jury to believe there is a 51 percent likelihood the incident happened. The NFL, which has stated the situation is "under review," has its own standard and its collective bargaining agreement with the players association affords commissioner Roger Goodell sweeping disciplinary power.

As for the repetitive nature of the allegations, Watson's defenders have pointed out the plaintiffs all have the same attorney, Houston-based Tony Buzbee. However, the women allegedly do not know each other and come from diverse backgrounds and different states — Texas, Georgia and California. Each of them, not to mention Buzbee, would be risking prosecution if they are engaged in an elaborate plot to somehow frame Watson.

Generally speaking, this is not how anyone would construct such a scam. And as the accusations pile up, it becomes almost impossible to simply dismiss this as the work of a single attorney or a few money-hungry liars.

“Police are going to look at patterns and each individual woman details similar behavior by Watson,” Mordock said.

Watson is broadly painted as someone who sought out therapists via Instagram only to later seek sex from them. Many, although not all, of the women he hired were unlicensed or lightly experienced and had no experience working with professional athletes.

One, Jane Doe No. 2, advertised herself as a masseuse but had never even taken a class. She alleges Watson flew her in from Atlanta for a massage at a Houston hotel suite anyway. He allegedly hired another masseuse while visiting Atlanta despite her fee being just $55. And another, Jane Doe No. 14, hails from Los Angeles and described an incident that occurred at a home in Beverly Hills, California.

The majority of the women expressed surprise that someone such as Watson randomly found them online. Some had no idea who he was until looking him up. They each saw the chance to work with an NFL star as a potential career-making opportunity, a boon to their often fledgling businesses. It played a role in ignoring red flags such as alleged requests to be alone in spas, meeting in hotels or Watson’s supposed insistence on being naked, despite their objections.

Each woman details a story that has Watson becoming increasingly suggestive and aggressive in seeking sex as the massage continued. Jane Doe’s 3 and 9 are the worst of the allegations, but each act is problematic and potentially criminal.

“Some of these are serious allegations,” Mordock said. “Some are less serious in the legal sense. Exposing yourself is different than forced oral sex. There is a sliding scale of proof and damages. However, if he is running around exposing himself to massage therapists, I think the police will be interested.”

This process is still just getting started

Even if police and prosecutors aren’t, neither the civil cases nor the NFL investigation are going to stop. The parade of plaintiffs adds strength to each other’s cases. Buzbee said at a news conference that the league has already been in contact with him.

Generally speaking, Watson will at least have to explain why he kept hiring mostly low-level massage therapists via Instagram when he had access to the Texans' medical personnel, not to mention any highly regarded professional in Houston or anywhere else in the country.

Combating that basic narrative is job one. Pointing at the plaintiffs’ attorney doesn’t do that.

Then comes whatever the DMs, witnesses and any other evidence suggest. It could be good for Watson. It could also be very damaging.

“The DMs will show a pattern,” Mordock said. “The DMs will show contact.”

While the Watson camp has been dismissive and the football world has been stunned that one of its “good guys” could be caught up in this, the situation is bad and getting worse for Watson.

“Early on he should have been settling for as cheap as possible with NDAs [non-disclosure agreements],” Mordock said. “Now he has to fight tooth and nail so he can keep playing. A settlement at this point is somewhat of an admission and he still could be suspended by the NFL.”

In the meantime, everyone waits for the next court filing ... and a detailed and thorough response from Deshaun Watson.

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