UPDATE (Aug. 18, 2022, 12:18 p.m. ET): The NFL and NFL Players Association have reached an agreement on discipline for Deshaun Watson, who will be suspended for 11 games and pay a $5 million fine for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
UPDATE (Aug. 3, 2022, 4:28 p.m. ET): The NFL on Wednesday said it plans to appeal the six-game suspension imposed by a league disciplinary officer.
The NFL’s sexual misconduct investigation into Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was doomed from the start.
On Monday, league disciplinary officer Sue Robinson ruled Watson will be suspended six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy after dozens of women accused him of sexual harassment and assault during massage therapy sessions.
The suspension has Watson sitting out one quarter for every sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him. Watson, who has denied any wrongdoing, recently settled 23 out of the 24 civil suits filed against him. The NFL has three days to appeal Robinson's decision.
“In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps," the NFL said in a statement Monday.
A press release from Watson’s representation in the NFL Players Association signaled the quarterback had anticipated a somewhat favorable ruling. The release claimed Watson and the players’ union would accept the ruling without trying to appeal, and it called on the NFL to do the same.
Early in the process, some pundits speculated the NFL would seek a year or multiyear suspension, so Monday’s news is disappointing — though likely unsurprising — for those hoping the league would hand down a heavier punishment. The NFL has a pattern of protecting men accused of abuse and helping them get back on the field as soon as possible. Watson is no different.
And while Watson is responsible for whatever lecherous actions he may have committed, we can’t ignore the NFL’s role in downplaying and — in my view — excusing his alleged behavior.
Last month, the Houston Texans, Watson’s former team, reached a settlement with 30 women who sued or were prepared to sue the organization over its role in the sexual misconduct allegations. The team denied having any knowledge of Watson's alleged misconduct.
Watson’s current team, the Browns, hastily completed a so-called investigation into the allegations before eagerly giving him a fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
But the NFL’s toxic culture benefited Watson in one more way.
In June, multiple reports revealed Watson and the NFLPA’s intent to reference a clause in the league’s personal conduct policy that says team ownership and management will be held to a higher standard and subjected to more discipline than players for violating the policy.
In other words: The (mostly) old white guys who own and operate teams can’t punish players harder than they punish themselves for similar conduct. And in this case, Watson and his team were reportedly prepared to highlight the allegations against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was investigated separately by the NFL and law enforcement in 2019 over salacious allegations he paid for sex at a Florida massage parlor. Like Watson thus far, Kraft — a well-connected billionaire — denied the allegations and wasn’t found guilty of a crime. What's more, Kraft faced no disciplinary action from the league. But the NFL’s personal conduct policy doesn’t require a crime be committed for players and officials to be punished.
When it comes to the Watson scandal, the player is culpable for his own alleged wrongdoing. But he’s also a prime example of what happens when powerful people downplay allegations of abuse and unethical behavior to serve their own interests.