Sports

Watson banned 11 games, maintains innocence

The NFL and the NFL Players Association on Thursday reached a settlement in the Deshaun Watson disciplinary matter, agreeing that the Cleveland Browns quarterback will serve an 11-game suspension without pay after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

Watson will also pay a fine of $5 million and undergo mandatory evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their suggested treatment program.

Watson’s fine and contributions from both the NFL and Browns of $1 million each will create a fund to support nonprofit organizations in the United States “that educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes,” the NFL said in announcing the settlement.

“I’m grateful that the disciplinary process has ended and extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received throughout my short time with the Browns organization,” Watson said in a statement released by the Browns. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made. My focus going forward is on working to become the best version of myself on and off the field and supporting my teammates however possible while I’m away from the team. I’m excited about what the future holds for me in Cleveland.”

Watson later met with the media on Thursday, however, and maintained his innocence.

“I’ll continue to stand on my innocence, just because you know settlements, and things like that happen doesn’t mean that a person is guilty for anything. I feel like a person has an opportunity to stand on his innocence and prove that, and we proved that from a legal side, and just going to continue to push forward as an individual and as a person,” he said.

He also said he wants to someday tell his side of the story to prove his innocence.

“That’s definitely the plan, that’s definitely the goal. I feel like through the whole process I’ve been trying to tell my side of the story. But a lot of people just didn’t pay a lot of attention to it,” he said.

Browns co-owner Dee Haslam, when asked about Watson’s comments about his innocence, said Thursday: “We respect his opinion. I do think in counseling Deshaun will learn a lot more about himself.”

She added: “Counseling is a process. It’s going to take some time for him. We feel like he’s making process.”

Watson’s suspension takes effect on Aug. 30, when NFL teams cut down to the roster limit of 53 players. He will be eligible for reinstatement on Nov. 28 and will be available to play for the Browns again in Week 13, when Cleveland faces his old team, the Houston Texans, on the road.

Watson, who started the Browns’ preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Friday, will not play again this preseason, coach Kevin Stefanski said Thursday.

The settlement between the two sides heads off a ruling from former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey, whom commissioner Roger Goodell appointed to oversee the NFL’s appeal of disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s decision that Watson be issued a six-game suspension.

“Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine, and a more substantial suspension. We are grateful to Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in addressing these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion.”

Robinson, an independent arbiter jointly appointed by the league and players’ union, originally ruled on Aug. 1 that Watson would serve a six-game suspension but would not be fined for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, writing in a 16-page report that “the NFL carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report.”

Goodell, in explaining the league’s decision to appeal Robinson’s ruling, said that the evidence called for at least a full-year suspension.

“As we have previously conveyed, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the NFL and NFLPA structure awaiting a final decision and we have respected the process,” Browns co-owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, we understand this is a real opportunity to create meaningful change and we are committed to investing in programs in Northeast Ohio that will educate our youth regarding awareness, understanding, and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community.”

Watson has been accused of sexual assault and other inappropriate conduct during massage therapy sessions in lawsuits filed by 25 women. The actions alleged in the lawsuits took place from March 2020 to March 2021, while Watson was a member of the Texans. One of the 25 lawsuits was dropped after a judge’s ruling in April 2021 that the plaintiffs needed to amend their petitions to disclose their names. Two other women filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him.

Watson has settled or agreed to settle all but one of the remaining lawsuits, which remains pending. In July, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who made claims or were prepared to make them against the NFL organization for its alleged “enabling” of Watson’s behavior.

“The message today to all victims is clear, if you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away,” attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who sued Watson, said in reaction to Thursday’s settlement. “The NFL has certainly demonstrated that it’s ownership and the organization doesn’t care. To all sexual assault survivors, do not allow this recent ‘punishment’ to deter you. Keep speaking up and keep speaking out. Your voice matters. You are making a difference. We stand with you.”

Although two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson earlier this year, the NFL had been investigating whether he violated its personal conduct policy since 2021. The league interviewed Watson over multiple days earlier this summer. The NFL’s investigators also spoke to several of the women.

In her report, which concluded Watson violated the personal conduct policy with “egregious” and “predatory” behavior, Robinson noted that an aggravating factor in her decision to suspend Watson for six games was his “lack of expressed remorse.”

After previously denying all wrongdoing and saying he had “no regrets” for any of his actions during the massage sessions, Watson publicly apologized to “all the women I have impacted” on Friday before Cleveland’s preseason opener.

The Browns traded for Watson in March, sending three first-round draft picks to the Texans. Cleveland then gave Watson a new five-year contract that was the richest deal in NFL history for any player.

Watson’s contract with the Browns guarantees him a league-record $230 million, with a base salary that will jump to $46 million in 2023 and a $44.965 million signing bonus.

Yet because Cleveland structured his contract to include a 2022 base salary of only $1.035 million, Watson was going to lose only $57,500 per game suspended, without the $5 million fine imposed in the settlement. Watson’s total lost pay this season will be $632,500.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said at the start of training camp that Jacoby Brissett would become Cleveland’s starter in the event of a Watson suspension, and indicated recently that he has “been very impressed” with Brissett thus far.

“Very comfortable with him,” Stefanski said. “I think he has a very good understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

Despite being a backup for much of his career, Brissett has 37 starts and a record of 14-23.

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