Following a 15-month investigation into sexual-misconduct allegations, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has now been suspended for 11 games. The increased suspension follows an initial ruling earlier this month that found him guilty on three counts and suspended him for six games, a decision that the NFL appealed.
Watson has been accused of sexual misconduct by over two dozen massage therapists he hired between the fall of 2019 and March 2021, with allegations including exposing himself and coercing them to touch him in a sexual manner. Two of the women say he pressured them into performing oral sex during their sessions. Watson has repeatedly denied the claims against him, recently saying, “I just want to clear my name.” He has settled 23 out of the 24 civil lawsuits brought against him, and two Texas grand juries have declined to charge him criminally.
The initial ruling came on August 1 from former federal judge Sue L. Robinson, who oversees player discipline and wrote that she found the NFL has “carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL).” Robinson ruled that Watson could work only with team-approved massage therapists during team-directed sessions for the duration of his NFL career. Now, in addition to his 11-game suspension, Watson will receive a $5 million fine (the highest in NFL history) and have to undergo counseling. The fine will be donated to organizations that work to prevent sexual assault.
In her 16-page ruling, Robinson noted Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” throughout the hearings as influential to her punishment. Less than a week ago, the quarterback finally apologized, saying he was “truly sorry to all the women that [he’s] impacted in the situation,” through the Browns’ media team. In a press conference on Thursday, however, he doubled down on his innocence. “I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence and keep pushing forward. I’ve always stood on not disrespecting or sexually assaulting anyone,” clarifying that he had apologized to everyone who was “triggered” by the situation and “all women,” not necessarily the ones who accused him of misconduct.
The NFL has long faced scrutiny for how it handles sexual misconduct and violence against women, and many critics expressed dismay at the leniency of the initial ruling. The NFL had previously asked for a full year’s suspension, and Tony Buzbee, the lawyer who represented many of Watson’s accusers, called the initial six-week suspension a “slap in the face.” Some have expressed frustration that Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for a year after betting that his team would win a game — far longer than Watson’s suspension over sexual-misconduct allegations.
Eleven games still doesn’t feel like enough to some. In response to the revised ruling, fellow NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III tweeted, “The NFL had an opportunity to show it had learned from its ugly history on standing up for women with this Deshaun Watson case and IT FAILED.” He called the outcome “sickening.”
Despite the ongoing claims against him, Watson signed a record-breaking $230 million five-year contract with the Cleveland Browns in July. With the expectation of a suspension, the Browns and Watson structured his contract so that he would lose a minimal amount of money for not playing a full season. Following the August 1 ruling, he reportedly was greeted with cheers from fans who were watching practice.
The Cleveland Browns’ owners, Dee and Jimmy Haslam, continue to stand behind Watson. “I think it’s important to remember that Deshaun is 26 years old, okay, and is a valuable NFL quarterback, and we’re planning on him being our quarterback for a long time,” Jimmy said on Thursday. Watson will return to the field to play on December 4.
This post has been updated.