Deshaun Watson probably wasn’t thrilled with the news Monday that independent arbitrator Sue Robinson handed him a six-game suspension to start the 2022 NFL season. The Cleveland Browns quarterback flatly denied all charges of sexual assault and harassment, and was hoping for no suspension at all.
But Watson should brace himself. His punishment could — and should — get a lot worse.
In a 16-page decision, Robinson spelled out how the NFL proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy. Watson was sued by 24 massage therapists in the Houston area alleging unwanted sexual contact, with 23 suits now settled.
The NFL argued that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.”
Robinson agreed, and stated that the NFL met its burden of proof that Watson violated the policy by engaging in:
▪ sexual assault.
▪ conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.
▪ conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.
“We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson . . . for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson,” the NFL said in a statement.
But the NFL and Robinson disagreed on how severe Watson’s punishment should be. That is going to be trouble for Watson.
Robinson settled on six games because that’s the precedent established when the NFL revised its personal conduct policy in 2015 following the Ray Rice incident. Robinson even noted that a six-game suspension technically shouldn’t apply for Watson, because he is not accused of domestic violence or violent crime.
Robinson noted that the only similar suspension in the NFL was for three games. She also pointed out that “only two players have been suspended for 8 games, one for multiple incidents of domestic violence and the second for the assault of multiple victims. A single player has been suspended for 10 games, for multiple incidents of domestic violence for which the player pled guilty to battery.”
Robinson also stated that her lighter penalty came partly from the NFL’s lack of “consistency and consequence” in applying the personal-conduct policy to “team owners who have been accused of similar or worse conduct,” which was one of the NFLPA’s main arguments. This appears to be a reference to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who didn’t face any consequences from the NFL for his 2019 incident in Florida.
The NFL wanted a lot more than six games for Watson. It argued that he deserves at least a year, with certain conditions to be met before he is reinstated.
Even so, the league still holds all the cards. And an increase in punishment is very much on the table for Watson.
The 2020 collective bargaining agreement established the creation of a neutral arbitrator to oversee disciplinary hearings. But the CBA still calls for commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee to oversee all appeals. And the CBA now allows Goodell to increase any punishment as he sees fit.
You could hear the nervousness from Watson and the NFL Players Association in the statement they released Sunday night in anticipation of the punishment. They declared that “Deshaun and the NFLPA will stand by her ruling, and we call on the NFL to do the same.” They know that no matter what Robinson decided, Goodell can come over the top.
Robinson ruled as a former judge in a district court, where the defendant has rights and is considered innocent until proven guilty. She agreed with the NFL’s argument, but decided that a yearlong ban would be too harsh based on precedent and technicalities.
Robinson’s issue is one of “notice,” and how the NFL never told players that unwanted sexual advances could lead to a six-game suspension.
“It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact,” Robinson wrote.
But the NFL is not federal court. It’s a private business, and Goodell is well within his rights to amplify the suspension.
A six-game ban for Watson — who “had a reckless disregard for the consequences of his conduct, which I find equivalent to intentional conduct,” according to Robinson — feels woefully short. He used his fame to prey on dozens of women, did not express remorse during the NFL’s investigation, and “categorically denied the allegations against him.”
And the Browns, Watson’s new team, have shamefully softened the financial implications of a suspension. His new five-year, $230 million contract (which is fully guaranteed) came with a $44.965 million signing bonus that can’t be touched by the suspension. Instead, Watson will be fined only 6/18ths of his $1.035 million base salary this year. He’ll lose $57,500 per game, or $345,000 for a six-game suspension. Then he’ll come back for the Browns’ final 11 games as if nothing ever happened.
Robinson’s decision may be fair in a legal sense, but justice is not being served. Watson needs to suffer real consequences, and NFL players need to understand that the punishment will be harsh if they use their celebrity to take advantage of women.
Goodell and the NFL have three days to decide whether to appeal Robinson’s decision. They should.
Perhaps a yearlong ban is too harsh, but an eight- or 10-game suspension seems much more appropriate. The NFL argued that Watson deserved an unprecedented punishment because his actions were unprecedented. The NFL is 100 percent right on that one.
Watson is probably not happy with the punishment. But he will be lucky if it doesn’t get a whole lot worse.
Read the decision below. Warning: Contains graphic content.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.