CLEVELAND, Ohio — Over the past two weeks, Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has shown the NFL he’s willing to do the work to move forward from the his off-the-field issues and resume his NFL career.
If the league sees enough effort and willingness from Watson, it could be a mitigating factor in his discipline, which could be handed down in the next week or two. According to the collectively bargained Personal Conduct Policy, the NFL will take into account a player’s actions in the aftermath of the alleged wrongdoing.
“In determining discipline, both aggravating and mitigating factors may be considered,’’ the policy reads. “Reference also may be made to requirements to seek ongoing counseling, treatment, or therapy where appropriate as well as the imposition of enhanced supervision, which upon satisfactory compliance would serve to mitigate the discipline otherwise imposed.’’
Last week, Watson acknowledged for the first time that he’s seeking counseling in the wake of more than 24 female massage therapists accusing him of sexual misconduct during appointments mostly in 2020 and 2021.
On Tuesday, he reached confidential settlements in 20 of the 24 civil suits against him, and is prepared to try to clear his name in the other four cases if it comes to that.
“It’s been a long year and half, I can say that,’’ Watson said last week during mandatory minicamp. “Personally, it’s been tough. And since I came here and since I became a Cleveland Brown, I’ve been able to use all the resources that this organization has. Been able to start using counseling and talking with someone just to make sure that my mental is straight and so I can be prepared to walk on this field and be as sharp as I possibly can.
“And I’m going to continue to do that, be the best person and grow as an individual, grow as a human being, and just be able to be the best citizen, best person that I can be outside this field, and also when I walk out of this building, be the best teammate and player that I can be.’’
The settlements came a week after Watson repeated that he didn’t want to do it.
“I just want to clear my name and be able to let the facts and the legal procedures continue to play out,’’ he said last week.
Ultimately, he decided it was the best way to begin to move ahead.
The decision to seek counseling was also a departure from his introductory press conference March 25, in which he said he didn’t need it because he didn’t do anything wrong. Whether he believes he’s innocent or not, Watson should benefit from therapy, and it could have an impact on the NFL’s decision.
In the wake of the 20 settlements announced Tuesday by plaintiffs attorney Tony Buzbee, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement, “Today’s development has no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.’’
But if the NFL sees that Watson is taking one more step to move forward and to make restitution even though he was determined to clear his name, perhaps it will be viewed favorably.
At the very least, Watson is getting help, and if his accusers need help in dealing with the aftermath of their encounters with him, they now have the resources to get it as well. And now, neither Watson nor 20 of his accusers will have to wait years for a resolution.
The next big step in the process is for former U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson, the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA, to determine the length of Watson’s suspension. A league source has confirmed for cleveland.com that the NFL Players Association is bracing for an “unprecedented” punishment, which could mean a year-long suspension, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that the league will dock him a significant number of games.
But the NFLPA is gearing up for a fight, and will argue that the league didn’t come down hard on NFL owners Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder for alleged misconduct on the part of themselves or those in their organizations.
While the NFL could start by suspending him a year, the NFLPA plans to argue for no suspension based in part on the fact there’s no evidence that Watson engaged in wrongdoing and that two separate grand juries declined to indict him on criminal charges.
But just like the non-indictments didn’t mean he was innocent, the settlements aren’t an admission of guilt. Watson maintains he’s done nothing wrong, but felt it was time to put the bulk of the cases behind him so it was less of a distraction to the Browns, their fans, and their players.
Again, if Watson does have to face four trials, he’ll view it as a chance to have his say in court and clear his name.
What’s the timeframe
NFL lead investigator Lisa Friel was close to wrapping up the investigation on May 24, and has talked to Watson on two occasions for a total of four days.
Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, told cleveland.com the NFL had completed its interviews with Watson, even though a 24th suit was subsequently filed and new accusers spoke for the first time to Jenny Vrentas of The New York Times.
Typically, when the NFL talks to the accused, the discipline is not far behind. Some expect it to come next week, but it could be as early as this week. Friel then makes a recommendation to Robinson, who can ask for a hearing or for more information before making a determination.
According to the policy, “depending on the nature of the violation and the player’s record, discipline may be a fine, a suspension for a fixed or an indefinite period of time, a combination of the two, or banishment from the league with an opportunity to reapply. Discipline may also include a probationary period and conditions that must be met for reinstatement and to remain eligible to participate.’’
If Watson’s camp disagrees with the ruling, they’ll appeal to Goodell, whose word will be final.
How much did he settle for?
The agreements were confidential, but a note in the 23rd civil suit states “we know that Deshaun Watson offered each plaintiff $100,000 to settle their cases, but not all would accept that amount, due to the aggressive non-disclosure agreement that Watson’s team proposed.’’
Hardin probably insisted on non-disclosure agreements again, and the amount of the settlements could vary.
The other plaintiffs — one of which is Ashley Solis, the first one to come forward and one of two to be interviewed by Soledad O’Brien for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” — are holding out for more money or are determined to go to trial.
It’s not yet known if Buzbee still plans to file the other two civil suits he said he intended to file, or if he’ll still add the Texans as a defendant.
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