The NFL and the NFL Players Association on Thursday reached a settlement in the Deshaun Watson disciplinary matter, agreeing that the Cleveland Browns quarterback will serve an 11-game suspension without pay after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
Watson will also pay a $5 million fine and undergo a mandatory evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their proposed treatment program.
Watson’s fine and contributions from both the NFL and Browns of $1 million each will create a fund to support nonprofit organizations in the United States “that educate young people about healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes. ,” the NFL said in announcing the settlement.
“I am grateful that the disciplinary process is over and extremely grateful for the tremendous support I have received during 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 take responsibility for the decisions I made. My focus moving forward is to work to become the best version of myself on and off the field and support my teammates in any way possible while I “m away from the team. I’m excited for what the future holds for me in Cleveland.”
Watson’s suspension takes effect Aug. 30 when NFL teams cut down to the 53-player roster limit. He will be eligible for reinstatement on Nov. 28 and will be available to play for the Browns again in Week 13, when Cleveland faces his old team, the Houston Texans, on the road.
The settlement between the two sides removes a ruling by former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey, who commissioner Roger Goodell appointed to oversee the NFL’s appeal of disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s decision that Watson be issued a six-game suspension.
“Deshaun is committed to doing the hard work for himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This settlement requires completion of a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine and a greater suspension. We thank Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in dealing with these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion.”
Robinson, an independent arbitrator appointed jointly by the league and the players’ union, originally ruled on Aug. 1 that Watson would serve a six-game suspension but not be fined for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, writing in a 16-page a report that “the NFL has borne its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report.”
Goodell, in explaining the league’s decision to appeal Robinson’s ruling, said the evidence called for at least a full-year suspension.
“As we have previously said, Deshaun and his representatives have been observing the structure of the NFL and NFLPA pending a final decision and we have respected the process,” Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, we understand that 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 about awareness, understanding and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and has shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community.”
Watson has been accused of sexual assault and other inappropriate behavior during massage therapy sessions in lawsuits filed by 25 women. The actions alleged in the lawsuits occurred from March 2020 to March 2021, while Watson was a member of the Texans. One of the 25 lawsuits was dismissed after a judge ruled in April 2021 that the plaintiffs had to amend their requests to reveal their names. Two other women filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him.
Watson settled or agreed to settle all but one of the remaining lawsuits, which remain pending. In July, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who had made claims or were ready to make them against the NFL organization for its alleged “enabling” of 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 starting in 2021. The league interviewed Watson for several days earlier this summer. NFL investigators also spoke to several of the women.
In her report, which concluded that Watson violated the personal conduct policy with “flagrant” and “predatory” behavior, Robinson noted that an aggravating factor in her decision to suspend Watson for six games was his “lack of expressed remorse.”
After previously denying any wrongdoing and saying he had “no regrets” for any of his actions during the massage sessions, Watson publicly apologized to “all the women that I affected” on August 12, before starting 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 the Texans. Cleveland then gave Watson a new five-year contract that was the richest deal in NFL history for any player.
Watson’s contract with the Browns guarantees him a league-record $230 million, with a base salary that will jump to $46 million in 2023 and a $44.965 million signing bonus.
However, because Cleveland structured his contract to include a base salary in 2022 of just $1.035 million, Watson will only lose $57,500 per game suspended, without the $5 million fine imposed in the settlement. Watson’s total lost salary this season will be $632,500.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said at the start of training camp that Jacoby Brissett would become Cleveland’s starter in the event of a Watson suspension, and indicated recently that he “has been very impressed” with Brissett so far.
“Very comfortable with him,” Stefanski said. “I think he has a very good understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”
Despite being a backup for much of his career, Brissett has 37 starts and a record of 14-23.