Photo: The Canadian Press
The NFL is seeking an indefinite suspension of at least one year plus a fine when appealing a disciplinary officer’s decision to suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policya person familiar with the filing told The Associated Press.
The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is not public knowledge, also said Watson would be required to undergo treatment before he could be reinstated. The league initially recommended an $8 million fine and asked for a $5 million fine in deal negotiations that never materialized, another person involved in the talks told the AP.
The NFL’s appeal gives commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates the authority to impose a more severe penalty. League spokesman Brian McCarthy said it remains to be determined whether Goodell or someone else will hear the appeal.
Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson issued her ruling Monday after Watson was accused by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments while playing for the Houston Texans.
In his 16-page report, Robinson described Watson’s behavior as “more egregious than any previously reviewed by the NFL.”
Robinson’s punishment, in her first case since being appointed jointly by the league and the NFL Players Association, fell well short of the indefinite suspension of at least one year requested by the league.
So the NFL on Wednesday exercised its right to appeal, under the collective bargaining agreement.
The players’ union has until the end of Friday to respond in writing. The union could challenge the appeal ruling in federal court, setting the stage for a protracted fight.
McCarthy said there is no time frame for Goodell or his designee to make a decision.
In accordance with the league’s personal conduct policy, the appeal will be processed on an expedited basis. In addition, it will be “limited to consideration of the terms of the discipline imposed” and “will be based on a review of the existing record without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered.”
The policy also states that the “decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may vacate, reduce, modify, or increase previously issued discipline, shall be final and binding on all parties.”
This is the first time since the new CBA was signed in 2020 that the league and NFLPA have used a jointly appointed disciplinary officer to determine personal conduct policy violations. In the past, Goodell has served as judge and jury to impose penalties on players.
By appealing, the NFL gives that power back to Goodell, who can choose someone else to impose any punishment.
A league official told the AP before Watson’s three-day disciplinary hearing concluded in June that the NFL wanted to avoid an appeal.
But the league proceeded with one amid a backlash from some fans and intense public pressure in the media. Other factors include Watson’s lack of remorse, which Robinson noted in his report.
Watson, who played four seasons with the Texans before sitting out last season and then being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment or assault during massage treatments in 2020 and 2021. Two grand juries. in Texas refused to charge Watson with criminal complaints filed by 10 of the women.
Robinson concluded that Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy: sexual assault; conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or compromises the integrity of the NFL.
He refused to suspend Watson for a full year based on precedent and current league policy. But Robinson concluded that a longer suspension might be warranted if it was already outlined in the personal conduct policy.
“While it may be entirely appropriate to more harshly discipline players for nonviolent sexual conduct, I do not think it is appropriate to do so without noting the extraordinary change this position heralds for the NFL and its players,” Robinson wrote in his report.
Watson continued to practice with the Browns while awaiting resolution of her case, raising questions about the league’s handling of player behavior off the field, inconsistencies in its personal conduct policy and its general support of women.
The Browns have also been in a state of limbo, not knowing when or if Watson will be able to play this season.
Cleveland traded three first-round picks to Houston for the three-time Pro Bowl QB and signed him to a five-year, $230 million contract.
Watson will lose just $345,000 if the suspension doesn’t change because his base salary this season is $1.035 million.
Watson did not comment to the AP when asked for his reaction to the league’s decision to appeal. He was then escorted into the Browns facility by a member of the team’s security personnel.
The three-time Pro Bowler had just finished the seventh practice of Cleveland’s training camp and was still on the field when the league’s appeal announcement was released.
Watson had a chat with Peter Jean-Baptiste, the team’s vice president of communications, before spending a few minutes signing autographs for service members and their families.
He was hugged by a woman who said she told Watson to “stay strong”.
AP sportswriter Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.