Image Source: Getty / Nick Cammett
On Aug. 1, Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for six games without pay for violating the National Football League’s (NFL) personal conduct policy. This was in response to the more than two dozen women who came forward with allegations against him for sexual misconduct during massage treatments. However, after widespread criticism that the punishment wasn’t sufficient, the NFL appealed it just two days later.
Now, Watson has been given a lengthier suspension — 11 games — with the addition of a $5 million fine and a “professional evaluation by behavioral experts” as well as their recommended treatment program, according to a release from the NFL.
Watson’s initial suspension was decided by retired federal judge and NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson. The NFL or NFL Players Association (NFLPA) had three days to appeal Robinson’s decision, and that’s exactly what they did. “We are grateful to Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in addressing these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion,” Commissioner Roger Goodell stated in the NFL’s release.
After his new suspension was announced, Watson maintained that he was not guilty. “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,” Watson said during a press conference. “But at the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career. For us to be able to move forward, I have to be able to take steps and put pride to the side, and I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence and keep pushing forward, and I’ve always stood on not disrespecting or sexual assaulting anyone.”
Watson’s fine and $2 million in contributions from the NFL and the Browns will create a fund that will go to support “the work of non-profit organizations across the country that educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes,” according to the NFL release.
“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,” reads a statement from Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam.
Deshaun Watson Press Conference https://t.co/mB0x93e38F
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 18, 2022
This isn’t the first time Watson’s conduct has come under scrutiny. While a member of the Houston Texans team, Watson did not play a single game in 2021 due to ongoing court cases. Earlier this month, 30 women reached a confidential settlement with the Houston Texans after claiming the organization enabled Watson’s misconduct. (The New York Times reported that Watson met with at least 66 women for massages in just under a year and a half and used hotel rooms and NDA agreements provided by the Texans.)
Watson and his legal team denied sexual-assault allegations when he joined the Cleveland Browns. The Browns were heavily criticized for signing Watson to the team in March, having already known about the 24 women suing the quarterback for sexual harassment or assault. The allegations largely concern Watson’s conduct during massage treatments. The plaintiffs claim Watson exposed himself during massages, touched the women with his penis, and coerced nonconsensual sexual acts, including oral sex. Only one of the 24 lawsuits brought against Watson currently remains pending, as the rest have been settled over the past few months.
“This case started because one woman had the fortitude to step forward and make her voice heard,” plaintiff attorney Tony Buzbee said in a statement after the Aug. 1 ruling. “Her courage inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have occurred without that one brave voice. One person can make a difference.”
Watson’s initial six-game suspension raised important questions about the NFL’s stance on sexual misconduct. It was criticized as simply being a slap on the wrist, and adding to the NFL’s legacy of disregarding the seriousness of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
Former Baltimore running back Ray Rice was initially suspended only two games after CCTV footage surfaced of an altercation between him and his wife, which included Rice dragging his semiconscious wife from a casino elevator (though amid public outcry, Rice was later suspended from the league). Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was twice accused of rape and is still expected to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Former Kansas City Chiefs star running back Kareem Hunt was caught on camera pushing and kicking a woman and received just an eight-game suspension. To put these numbers into context, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for an entire season and banned from all practice and club functions after failing a marijuana test in 2014.
The irony isn’t lost on sports fans, either. One Twitter user wrote, “Just to put it into perspective, Tom Brady got 4 games for deflating some footballs. Watson sexually assaults 20+ women . . . 6 games. The NFL is a joke.” NFL reporter Dov Kleiman tweeted, “Josh Gordon was suspended for 78 games by the NFL for smoking weed. Calvin Ridley was suspended for at least 1 full season for making a bet that his team will win. Vincent Jackson was suspended for 3 games because of unlicensed driving. Plaxico got 4 games for shooting his leg.”
The NFL’s appeal of Watson’s initial suspension and the implementation of a heavier punishment is a sign that, hopefully, the league’s treatment of sexual misconduct and abuse is finally changing for the better.
—Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo