Watson Suspended 11 Games and Fined $5 Million in Sexual Misconduct Case

Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback, will be suspended for 11 games and pay a record $5 million fine after the N.F.L. appealed what many thought was a lenient six-game suspension for accusations by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct in massage appointments.

The league announced Thursday that Watson must undergo evaluation by behavioral experts, followed by a treatment program. The fine, as well as an additional $1 million each from the league and the Browns, will be donated to groups that work to prevent sexual assault.

The penalties were the result of a settlement between Watson’s representatives from his legal team and the players’ union, and the N.F.L. They are among the most severe in league history, and come as the league faces heightened scrutiny over its treatment of women and after backlash to the initial suspension handed down by an arbitrator earlier this month, which some said wasn’t harsh enough to be a deterrent and did not address the scope of accusations against Watson.

“Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the N.F.L.,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

In a statement released through the team Thursday, Watson said he was “grateful” that the disciplinary process had ended. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused,” he said. “I take accountability for the decisions I made.”

But when asked by a reporter why he accepted the suspension and fine after long insisting he had done nothing wrong, Watson said he was innocent of the claims against him.

“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I’m continuing to stand on that,” he said in a news conference after the settlement was reached. “But at the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career.”

The settlement was less than the indefinite suspension, with the chance to apply for reinstatement after a year, that the N.F.L. sought, but it nearly doubled the one initially imposed by a third-party disciplinary officer this month.

Thursday’s decision ended one of the most high-profile tests of the league’s personal conduct policy, a case that involved a star quarterback in his prime who was accused of serially harassing and assaulting women but who was never charged with a crime. Watson reached settlements with 23 of 24 women who filed lawsuits against him.

In the 18 months since the first allegations surfaced, Watson was traded by the Houston Texans for a bevy of draft picks to the Browns, who signed him to a $230 million fully guaranteed contract, prompting questions about whether teams were taking the accusations seriously.

The settlement headed off a potential challenge of the discipline in federal court, a route the N.F.L. Players Association has taken, with mixed success, in other player suspensions thought too severe. It also allows for Watson to begin the mandated evaluation and treatment program, the length of which will be determined by the behavioral experts. Failure to participate fully in either the recommended program or the evaluation could trigger more discipline or otherwise delay his reinstatement.

Watson’s initial suspension, which did not include a fine or a recommendation for counseling, was issued on Aug. 1 by Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge jointly appointed by the league and the players’ union to rule based on the results of the league’s investigation and arguments made by both sides during a three-day disciplinary hearing.

Robinson found that Watson had committed multiple violations of the personal conduct policy by engaging in what she described as “predatory” and “egregious” conduct. But she also suggested that she was limited in her authority to mete out stricter discipline by the N.F.L.’s policies and past rulings.

Two days after her ruling, the N.F.L. appealed the decision as per a new process agreed to by the league and the players’ union in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. As it had argued to Robinson, the N.F.L. again sought to bar Watson from playing for at least a year, after which he would have to make a case for reinstatement.

“We’ve seen the evidence,” Goodell told reporters at a meeting of N.F.L. team owners in Minneapolis last week. “She was very clear about the evidence. She reinforced the evidence that there was multiple violations here and they were egregious and it was predatory behavior. Those are things that we always felt were really important for us to address in a way that’s responsible.”

Goodell picked Peter C. Harvey, an N.F.L. adviser and former New Jersey attorney general, to hear the league’s appeal of the initial ban. As Harvey considered the appeal, settlement talks between the league and the players’ union continued. Before starting the Browns’ first preseason game in Jacksonville, Fla., last Friday, Watson apologized for the first time “to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation” in a brief interview with a member of the Browns’ preseason broadcast team.

“The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position, I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character,” Watson said.

The N.F.L., which had pointed to Watson’s lack of remorse in its appeal for harsher discipline, considered Watson’s comments a first step toward accountability. But after the settlement was released, Watson again denied any wrongdoing and said that his apology was directed to the people who were “triggered” by news of the accusations against him.

A New York Times investigation published in June showed that Watson engaged in more questionable behavior than previously known, extending beyond the claims of the 24 women who filed lawsuits against him: He booked massage appointments with at least 66 different women from fall 2019 through spring 2021, and a few of these additional women, speaking publicly for the first time, described experiences that undercut Watson’s insistence that he was only seeking professional massage therapy.

When reached for comment Thursday, David Mulugheta, Watson’s agent, said, “We’re going to stay away from The New York Times. Have a good one.”

Later, Mulugheta criticized Robinson, the third-party disciplinary officer, in a Twitter post that he soon deleted. Mulugheta claimed that Robinson “repeated the N.F.L.’s narrative” about Watson’s “pattern of behavior” before she spoke with Watson and his representatives but after she read the league’s brief on its investigation.

Watson will continue to be eligible to participate in practices and preseason games. His suspension will begin Aug. 30, well before the Browns’ regular-season opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 11.

Watson can return to the Browns’ facility on Oct. 10, the midway point in his suspension. He is eligible for reinstatement on Nov. 28, the day after the Browns’ 11th game and will be eligible to play on Dec. 4, against his old team, the Texans in Houston.

By that point, he will have not played in a regular season game in 700 days, having opted to sit out the 2021 season as he sought a trade from the Texans.

After the first accuser filed a lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, Goodell opted not to place him on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would have granted Watson paid leave as the allegations were investigated.

The Texans traded Watson in March 2022 after a Texas grand jury declined to charge him. At least four teams recruited Watson’s services, and the Browns won what became a bidding war, at least in part because they were willing to guarantee his entire contract. Most of Watson’s compensation for this year came in a nearly $45 million signing bonus, a structure that minimized the portion of his overall pay he could be docked for missing games while serving a suspension this season.

The 11-game suspension is expected to cost Watson $632,500 of his $1.035 million base salary.

The deal led to accusations that the Browns, Falcons, Panthers, Saints and other teams bidding for Watson’s services were dismissive of the allegations made against him. Jimmy Haslam, co-owner of the Browns, has publicly supported Watson but last week told reporters that he would respect the league’s judiciary process.

After the settlement was announced Thursday, Haslam said he had no regrets signing Watson and was “absolutely, 100 percent” comfortable with his being on the Browns.

“Is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be part of society?” Haslam said. “I think it’s important to remember that Deshaun is 26 years old, OK, and is a valuable N.F.L. quarterback, and we’re planning on him being our quarterback for a long time.”

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