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Deshaun Watson receives 6-game suspension from arbiter

Both sides can appeal the decision to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during Cleveland Browns training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on July 27, 2022 in Berea, Ohio. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Independent disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson ruled on Monday that Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should be suspended for six games in the 2022 season, per multiple reports. The suspension stems from allegations that Watson committed multiple acts of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.

Twenty-four women filed civil suits against Watson seeking damages from their experiences with him. To date, Watson has settled 20 of those suits, leaving four pending. Thirty women also accused the Texans of enabling Watson’s alleged sexual misconduct. The Texans have settled with all 30 women. Two Texas grand juries declined to bring charges against Watson, which isn’t unusual in sexual assault cases. Texas grand juries are closed, and there’s no way to know what evidence prosecutors chose to present. Watson has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Watson’s disciplinary hearing with the league began on Tuesday, June 28, and was presided over by retired federal Judge Sue Lewis Robinson. Robinson was appointed as the league’s disciplinary officer jointly by the NFL and NFLPA, in accordance with the current collective bargaining agreement.

Per the current CBA, Watson and the NFLPA had three days to appeal the decision in writing to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Prior to the ruling, the NFLPA and Watson announced they would abide by the arbiter’s ruling. The NFL announced Wednesday that it will appeal the ruling. Per’s Judy Battista, the league is seeking a full season suspension for Watson.

According to Rob Maaddi at the Associated Press, league sources suggested the NFL was initially pushing for a minimum one-year suspension for Watson, while Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, and his legal team were — unsurprisingly — pushing for no suspension.

Maaddi also reported that the league would be willing to consider a shorter suspension of six to eight games simply to avoid the appeals process.

The NFL has been inconsistent in applying discipline to players accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, starting with the two-game suspension of former Ravens receiver Ray Rice, who was caught on video punching his then-fiancée, knocking her unconscious. The league received backlash for suspending Rice for just two games, and its reaction was to suspend Rice indefinitely. After that, the NFL instituted a six-game suspension as the baseline for players who committed sexual assault or domestic violence.

But the league rarely adheres to that baseline. In 2016, Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for one game following an arrest for domestic violence toward his then-wife. It was later revealed that the Giants were aware of Brown’s extensive history of domestic violence.

And the list goes on. Jameis Winston was suspended for three games for allegedly sexually assaulting an Uber driver. Greg Hardy allegedly attempted to strangle a woman and threw her on a futon covered with guns, and the NFL reduced his initial 10-game suspension down to just four games. It happened before the NFL instituted the six-game baseline, but Ben Roethlisberger served just a three-game suspension in 2010 after being credibly accused of sexual assault.

Watson signed a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract with the Cleveland Browns after the Texans were courted by the Browns, Panthers, Saints, and Falcons all seeking to trade for Watson. According to Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing Watson’s accusers, zero teams attempted to speak with any of the women to learn more about their experiences with Watson. The NFL did speak with some accusers in the course of its investigation into Watson’s conduct, but Buzbee told SB Nation he got the impression that the NFL was just going through the motions.

“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.”

Further complicating the issue is Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who is facing a season-long suspension for betting on NFL games last season. Ridley placed the bets during the time period he was away from the team to focus on his mental health. The NFL has embraced the sports betting industry of late and it was reportedly set to bring in about $270 million from those partnerships last year, but it still apparently thinks betting on games a player had no opportunity to influence is more serious than two dozen credible accusations of serial sexual misconduct.

The Browns structured Watson’s contract so that his base salary is just over $1 million in 2022, shielding Watson financially from the suspension everyone knew was coming.