You’d think that as the Browns, Falcons, Panthers and Saints scrambled to convince Deshaun Watson to waive his no-trade clause with the Texans to join their teams, that those same teams might want to do some due diligence looking into the 22 civil suits alleging serial sexual misconduct that are currently pending against the quarterback. Right?
Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing the women accusing Watson of sexual harassment and assault, confirmed to SB Nation on Wednesday that none of the teams reported or rumored to be interested in Watson contacted his office to explore the allegations or to request to speak with any of the accusers.
Now, there aren’t any set parameters or requirements for what due diligence should look like in this situation, but let’s take a gander at what the four teams that seemed most interested in landing Watson had to say about their processes.
The Cleveland Browns
Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam released a statement after the team signed Watson to a massive $230 million fully guaranteed deal.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity to trade for Deshaun Watson,” the Haslams said in a statement. “We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision. Our team’s comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved.“
Buzbee confirmed that the Browns’ “exploring” and “investigating” did not include connecting with his office for more information or interviewing any of Watson’s accusers.
The Atlanta Falcons
Terry Fontenot, the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, said a bunch of words that didn’t really mean anything in a press conference on Wednesday.
“We had a process, and we looked into everything and we determined from where we are and the information we had, we determined that we wanted to explore [a trade for Watson]”, Fontenot said. “And obviously we take the allegations very serious, but based on the information we had, we wanted to explore it.”
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith declined to answer whether or not the team had reached out to Buzbee or attempted to speak to any of Watson’s accusers, saying instead:
“We’re not going to get into our process. We wouldn’t with any trade, any player. We understand the seriousness of the questions you’re asking, but we’re also not going to comment on an ongoing civil case.”
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who was heavily involved in “rolling out the red carpet” to recruit Watson to Atlanta, has not made any public statements on the matter.
Regardless of what the Falcons do or do not want to share about their process here, Buzbee confirmed the team did not contact him or attempt to speak to any of his clients.
“No, ma’am. Nobody reached out to me. Nobody reached out to my clients, either,” Buzbee said.
The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints
The Panthers and Saints, to my knowledge, have not released any statements or publicly acknowledged their pursuit of Watson. They have also not shared any details about what their vetting process looked like.
I do commend Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer for calling Panthers owner David Tepper out for his silence. As Fowler says so eloquently in the piece, “Rumors fill in the gaps that words don’t.”
Buzbee confirmed that nobody from the Panthers, the Saints, or any of the other teams rumored to be interested in trading for Watson contacted his office or attempted to speak with any of the accusers.
The lack of concern from NFL teams was expected
And it’s an outcome he prepared his clients for.
“I think eight or 10 of my clients, early on, were interviewed by the NFL,” Buzbee said. “And I think we we concluded pretty quickly that the NFL wasn’t serious about the situation. So I kind of shut that process down.”
And that’s why Buzbee didn’t expect any NFL teams to reach out to him or have conversations with any of his clients.
In fall 2021, when the Dolphins were rumored to have interested in trading for Watson as he sat on the sidelines, not suspended or on the commissioner’s exempt list, but also not taking the field for the Texans, someone connected to the organization did contact Buzbee.
“You know, the Dolphins sometime back in the fall, they didn’t reach out to me directly,” Buzbee said. “But they reached out to me through an intermediary who was trying to broker a settlement. And I did spend some time with an individual — at least he’s claimed that he was acting on behalf of the Dolphins ownership — to get some information about the cases. And I was very frank about it. I answered all of his questions.
“But this here recently, there’s been nobody that’s reached out to me, no team, and I didn’t expect it to happen anywhere.”
What happened with the grand jury in Harris County, Texas?
The mad dash to woo Watson started almost immediately after a grand jury in Houston, Texas, declined to charge Watson on nine counts of sexual misconduct. That wasn’t a surprise to Buzbee, nor was it a surprise for his clients.
“I didn’t expect a whole lot from the Harris County grand jury just because it’s very political,” Buzbee said. “I didn’t expect there to be any sort of criminal prosecution, never have expected it and made that very clear from the beginning. It has nothing to do with our civil case, and the civil case lives and dies on its own merits.”
On Thursday, news broke that another Texas grand jury would again consider a sexual assault charge against Watson for an alleged incident that took place outside of Harris County’s jurisdiction. The grand jury in Brazoria County, Texas, also declined to indict Watson.
The primary focus remains on the civil suits.
“From the beginning, we’ve been clear that, whether Deshaun Watson plays, where he plays, if he plays has no significance to the civil lawsuits. And I’ve tried to depress any sort of expectations — remember, we’re talking about 22 different people who have different ideas about things — but I’ve been pretty consistent that if you’re expecting the NFL or any NFL team, to grow a conscience, you can forget that,” Buzbee said. “Before any of the clients were allowed to talk to the NFL, I made it pretty clear that, look: Don’t expect a lot, because these people police themselves.
“I think, after that process, most of the clients realize that their justice, to the extent they get any justice, is going to be through the civil justice system. And that system doesn’t care if Deshaun Watson can throw a ball 80 yards or how fast he runs.”
Buzbee said he is still in the process of deposing Watson for the civil suits — one deposition for each woman’s case, each of which takes several hours, plus one general deposition, and there are other witnesses to question before it can go to trial. Buzbee estimated that late summer to fall would be the earliest that would happen — so potentially right around training camp, the start of the 2022 season, or even during the season.
The lack of due diligence from teams is irresponsible at best
If you’re not familiar with the details of the allegations against Watson, I’ll give you the CliffsNotes.
More than 20 women came forward accusing Watson of sexual misconduct. The women were contacted by Watson via Instagram, where he inquired about booking their services for a massage.
The filings, some of which you can review here (CW: graphic descriptions of alleged sexual harassment and sexual assault) are eerily similar, and I encourage you, if you are emotionally able, to review them for yourself.
“You’ve got a very weird situation where somebody who’s a self-described ‘celebrity world class athlete,’ and I say that because that’s what [Watson] said under oath,” Buzbee said. “That’s how he described himself, and he’s reaching out to only women, only based on their picture, people that he doesn’t know who are strangers on Instagram, without asking them what their experience level is, skill level, recommendations, ratings, nothing — asking literally zero questions other than, can they be available for a massage? And can he bring his own towel, and he’s got to make sure that it’s private.
“So when you think about it in that context, obviously, these kinds of things are always going to be what what one person says against the other one, but you have to weigh the credibility and the plausibility of the stories.”
More women initially came forward and tried to secure Buzbee’s representation, but he didn’t agree to represent anyone if he didn’t believe he could win their case.
“I turned away at least four other cases, that were women making the same claim that I just — I just was frank with them. I said, ‘I don’t know if I could win your case.’” Buzbee said.
Buzbee is confident about his ability to get some semblance of justice in the 22 civil suits that are currently pending against Watson. And he’s proud of his clients and the courage they’ve shown coming forward with these allegations against a well known, talented, popular NFL quarterback.
“They’ve shown you what real moral courage is,” Buzbee said. “I’ve told them, never read the comments and stay off Twitter, because people are just mean and nasty, and people criticize you ... I’ve been very proud of how they’ve stood up and stood strong.”
Imagine if the NFL teams that pursued Watson had shown any moral courage in this situation?