Deshaun Watson’s legal team takes on the NFL on Tuesday in front of a retired judge to determine his immediate future with the Cleveland Browns.
Former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players’ Association, will hold a hearing to determine whether Watson violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy and whether to impose discipline.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback agreed to settle 20 of 24 civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct, but he’s still facing a significant penalty. A person familiar with the NFL’s position told The Associated Press last week the league is seeking a lengthy suspension for Watson based on the number of sexual assault allegations and conversations with the 11 women who were made available for interviews. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the hearing have not been disclosed publicly.
Watson’s side, led by renowned attorney Jeffrey Kessler, will try to argue there’s no basis for a long suspension. Two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints stemming from the allegations. Watson has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to clear his name.
The NFL has punished several players for violating the league’s personal conduct policy without criminal charges. In 2010, Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension after being accused of sexual assault by two women. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later reduced the suspension to four games. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott got six games in 2017 for domestic violence incidents.
On Monday, a woman who previously sued Watson filed a lawsuit against the Houston Texans, alleging his former team provided him with resources to enable his actions and “turned a blind eye” to his behavior.
This will be the first hearing for Robinson, who was the first woman Chief Judge for the District of Delaware. Previously, Goodell had the authority to impose discipline for violations of the personal conduct policy. Still, Goodell holds considerable power. If either the union or league appeals Robinson’s decision, Goodell or his designee “will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute,” per terms of Article 46 in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
That means Goodell could ultimately overrule Robinson's decision and give Watson one year or even an indefinite suspension due to the potential for more cases.
In April, Major League Baseball suspended pitcher Trevor Bauer two full seasons following the league’s investigation of domestic violence and sexual assault allegations made against him. That suspension didn’t include the 99 regular-season games the Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander missed after being placed on administrative leave on July 2, 2021.
Asked whether MLB’s handling of Bauer’s case has been discussed, a league official told the AP it’s difficult to compare the two but stressed the accusations against Watson are serious enough to warrant an “unprecedented punishment.” The person spoke on condition of anonymity because Robinson hasn't heard the case.
It's unknown how long it will take Robinson to make a decision, but the Browns should know Watson's availability before training camp. NFL discipline typically begins the week leading into the first regular-season game, so Watson would be eligible for camp unless a potential punishment stipulates otherwise.
The Browns traded a slew of draft picks to acquire Watson and gave him a five-year, $230 million guaranteed contract in March.