The NFL and the NFL Players Association reached a settlement on Thursday in the disciplinary case of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, agreeing that he will serve an 11-game suspension without pay after more than two dozen women allegedly sexually assaulted him during a massage.
Watson will pay a $5 million fine, undergo a mandatory evaluation by behavioral experts and follow a recommended treatment program.
Watson’s fine and a $1 million contribution from both the NFL and the Browns will create a fund to support nonprofit organizations in the United States that “educate youth about healthy relationships, promote education and prevent sexual harassment and assault, support survivors, and related causes,” the NFL said in announcing the settlement.
“I am grateful that the disciplinary process is over and I am extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received in my short time with the Browns organization,” Watson said in a statement released by the Browns. “I apologize again for any pain this situation has caused. I am responsible for the decisions I have made. My focus is on working to be the best version of myself on and off the field and supporting my teammates as much as I can.” I’m excited about what the future holds for me in Cleveland.
Watson’s suspension will take effect on Aug. 30 when NFL teams reduce the 53-player roster limit. He will be eligible for reinstatement on Nov. 28 and will be ready to play again for the Browns in Week 13 when Cleveland faces his old team, the Houston Texans, on the road.
The agreement between the two parties will trigger a ruling by former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who was appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell to oversee NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s decision to suspend Watson for six games.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that “Deshawn has decided to put in the hard work necessary to return to the NFL.” “This settlement requires a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine and a more significant suspension. We thank Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts to resolve these issues, which laid the groundwork for reaching a conclusion.”
In a 16-page report, an independent arbitrator appointed jointly by the league and the players’ union, Robinson, originally ruled on Aug. 1 that Watson would face a six-game suspension but would not be fined for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Mr. Watson bears the NFL’s burden of proving sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists described in the report.
In explaining the league’s decision to appeal Robinson’s decision, Goodell said the evidence required at least a full-year suspension.
“As we’ve communicated previously, Deshaun and his representatives are in compliance with the NFL and NFLPA structure pending a final decision, and we respect that process,” Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Now that the decision on discipline has been reached, we understand that this is a real opportunity to make a meaningful difference and we are committed to investing in programs that address the awareness, understanding and, most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct among our youth in Northeast Ohio. Since entering our building, he has been a highly contributing member of our organization, both on and off the field. Earning the trust of our community.”
Watson has been accused of sexually assaulting and other inappropriate acts during massage therapy in a lawsuit filed by 25 women. The acts alleged in the indictments took place between March 2020 and March 2021, and Watson was a member of Texas. One of the 25 lawsuits was dropped by a judge in April 2021 so the plaintiffs could amend their pleadings to reveal their names. Two other women have filed criminal charges against Watson but have not charged him.
Watson agreed to settle all but one of the remaining charges, which are pending. In July, the Texans reached a settlement with 30 women who filed claims against the NFL organization for allegedly “enabling” Watson’s behavior.
Although two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson earlier this year, the NFL has been investigating whether he violated its personal conduct policy since 2021. The league interviewed Watson several days ago this summer. NFL investigators also spoke with several women.
Robinson’s aggravating factor in her decision to suspend Watson for six games was that Watson violated the personal conduct policy in “serious” and “predatory” behavior, according to the report.
After previously denying all wrongdoing and saying he had “no regrets” for any of his actions during the massage sessions, Watson publicly apologized to “all the women I’ve influenced” on Aug. 12, before Cleveland’s preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Watson has not spoken to reporters since the start of training camp.
The Browns traded for Watson in March, sending three first-round draft picks to Texas. Cleveland then gave Watson a new five-year contract, the richest deal for any player in NFL history.
Watson’s contract with the Browns guarantees him a league-record $230 million.
However, Cleveland structured his contract to include only $1.035 million in 2022 base salary, meaning Watson would only lose $57,500 per game, excluding the $5 million penalty in the settlement.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said at the start of training camp that Jacoby Brissett will be Cleveland’s starter in the event of Watson’s suspension, and recently said he’s been “very impressed” with Brissett so far.
“He’s very comfortable with it,” Stefanski said. “I think he has a good understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”
Despite being a backup for most of his career, Brissett would start 37 games with a 14-23 record.