After months of speculation, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is set to serve a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and will not be fined, ESPN reported Monday. Watson was accused of sexual assault, use of force, and unwanted touching during massage sessions, according to civil lawsuits filed by 25 women. He is expected to practice with the Browns today.
To date, Watson has maintained his innocence, and his legal team have suggested at every turn that most of the 25 women were lying for a chance at fame and a “slanderous” cash grab from one of the league’s richest players. Cleveland gave Watson a historical five-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $230 million earlier this year, even as more women came forward with suits against him. According to Sports Illustrated, a clause built into his contract mandates Watson will only lose $55,556 for each game he’s suspended. His lawyers admitted that three women did engage in sexual relations with Watson but maintain those acts were consensual, initiated by the women, and happened after the massages. To this day, Watson has not apologized to a single one of them, and has not been arrested nor charged for sexual assault. “No, like I said I never assaulted anyone,” Watson said in June. “I never harassed anyone. I never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything.”
The more than two dozen women, and several bombshell investigative reports, state otherwise. According to the New York Times, Watson met at least 66 women for massages over a 17-month period between fall 2019 and spring 2021 while he played for the Houston Texans—a much larger number than previously known. During the first wave of suits in March 2021, some women claimed Watson began touching them with his penis and forcing sexual acts including oral sex without their consent. Others said he directed them to “get up in there” or massage his testicles during the session, only to ejaculate during follow-up appointments. Watson reportedly ping-ponged from one masseuse to the next, luring beginner masseuses on Instagram and posing as a philanthropic athlete “just tryna support black businesses.” He then allegedly handed many of the women nondisclosure agreements that were drafted by an employee of the Texans, according to the Times.
After two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson earlier this year, the quarterback’s case was decided by retired federal judge and disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson—a joint hire by the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association—who was nominated by George Bush to serve on the U. S. District Court in Delaware in 1991. The NFL’s Tom Pelissero says Judge Robinson’s written decision ruled that Watson’s “pattern of behavior was egregious,” but that his “nonviolent sexual conduct” did not warrant an indefinite suspension.
Both sides have three days to submit a written appeal, though the NFLPA already issued a joint statement with Watson stating they accept the ruling and have chosen to honor the grand juries’ previous rulings. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to appeal the decision, and, according to Article 46 of the NFLPA’s CBA, “will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute.”
In June, Robinson received oral arguments from the league, the NFLPA, and Watson’s attorney over the course of a three-day hearing in Delaware. The NFL had reportedly been pushing for a suspension of at least a year or 12 games with a fine in the range of $8 million. And while public opinion could drive the commissioner to hand down a more restrictive final suspension, the assumption that this decision might be out of respect for the women or sheer good will is naive. Signing off on a longer suspension could protect the league if any further lawsuits come to fruition and would go a long way in currying public favor for a beleaguered institution known for handing down a two-month suspension for former Ravens player Ray Rice’s domestic abuse case.
As some NFL fans come to terms with their indirect endorsement of sexual abuse through the attendance of games, it’s likely (and sadly) financially beneficial for Goodell to further suspend Watson. If his six-game suspension is upheld, however, Watson will engage in preseason practice as if nothing happened, tossing around a pigskin as if he never forced his penis onto dozens of women in a display of uncontrolled entitlement. The CBA states he’d also be allowed to return to Browns’ practices as early as Week 4.
As if the United States’ sense of justice isn’t already butchered to all hell, it appears the only place Black men are guaranteed vindication is in the court of football, where serious crimes disintegrate into simple “misconduct,” and “Get Out of Jail Free” cards are doled out like Halloween candy. While Goodell and the league’s corporate office may side with the women this time in the form of harsher sentencing, we cannot forget the culpability of the institution of football at large: the institution that enabled the Browns to spend $230 million on a quarterback accused of heinous behavior towards women, that allowed the Texans to provide Watson “a place” at The Houstonian where he set up private massages, and the sort of cloaked judicial system that suspended Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson just three months for injuring his own child.
When Watson testified during his hearing that he’s “still trying to figure out why we in the situation we are in right now, why I’m talking to you guys, why you guys are interviewing me. I don’t know. Do not know,” he spoke on behalf of a century-old league that has historically brushed off sexual assault and domestic violence. To that end, it makes perfect sense why Watson might be confused as to his circumstances: In the NFL, men have not only gotten away with much worse, but have been ushered into a pastel-glazed sunset of retirement, riding away on a white horse with the status of NFL “great” or “hero” or “role model.” Why shouldn’t a serial sexual abuser expect the same treatment?
Of all the many suits against Watson, just one remains. One of the 25 lawsuits was dropped following a judge’s ruling that the plaintiff needed to disclose her name. Later this year, ESPN reported, Watson settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits, and on Monday, he agreed to settle three of the remaining four, according to the women’s attorney Tony Buzbee. One woman left to weather the storm that is Deshaun Watson, whose presence in the NFL will linger as a trigger to all the women he abused—a weekly Sunday reminder, like a fucked up family ritual, to remember the ways in which they were, despite Robinson’s opinion, violently violated at his hands.