BEREA, Ohio — Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will serve an 11-game unpaid suspension, pay a $5 million fine and undergo professional evaluation and treatment under a settlement with the NFL after two dozen women had sexual assaults accused of wrongdoing.
The league had sought to ban Watson for at least a year for violating his personal conduct policy. He was accused of sexually harassing and coercing the women during massage therapy sessions while he was with the Houston Texans.
Watson signed a fully guaranteed $230 million contract after being traded to the Browns in March. Because the team structured Watson’s deal to earn him $1.035 million in his first season, he will lose $632,500 in salary during the suspension.
As part of the settlement, Watson can return to Houston for the Browns game on December 4.
“All my life I just have to be able to move forward and that’s the plan,” Watson said shortly after the settlement was announced. “I have to be able to move forward with my career, move forward with my family, my personal life and everything.”
The settlement ended months of speculation and ushered in a ruling by former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who was appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell after the league challenged a six-game suspension imposed by Disciplinary Officer Sue L. Robinson had been appealed.
As part of the settlement between the league and the NFL Players Association, Watson must be evaluated by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program.
Watson apologized for the first time since the allegations surfaced last week ahead of the Browns’ season opener. He tried to show more remorse on Thursday while claiming he’s never been inappropriate towards women.
“I have always stood by my innocence and have always said I have never attacked or disrespected anyone and I will continue to stand by it,” he said. “But at the same time, I have to keep pushing forward with my life and career.
“I will continue to stand by my innocence and keep pushing forward, and I have always insisted on not disrespecting or sexually assaulting anyone.”
Along with his $5 million fine, the league and Browns are each donating $1 million to a fund that will support nonprofits across the country to educate young people about “healthy relationships, education and prevention of sexual misconduct and to encourage abuse, support survivors and related causes.”
Watson can train until the start of the suspension on August 30 but manager Kevin Stefanski said he will not play in any pre-season games. He is not allowed to return to the team’s facility until October 10, about halfway through the suspension. Watson can start training again on November 18 and can be reinstated two weeks later.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents all 24 women who have sued Watson, criticized the NFL’s handling of the case and settlement.
“By settling this matter as he has, Roger Goodell has proven one of two things: either his recent rhetoric was utter nonsense, or his bark is far worse than his bite,” Buzbee said in a statement. “To my mind, he’s nothing more than a paper tiger.
“Today’s message to all victims is clear: if you think you have been sexually assaulted by someone powerful, shut up and walk away. The NFL has certainly shown that they and the organization don’t care.”
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who have been widely criticized for acting for Watson, stood by the QB. They said they expect him to learn and grow from the experience.
“Since Deshaun came into our building in April, he has done everything we asked of him and more,” Jimmy Haslam said at a press conference with his wife and Browns chief executive Andrew Berry. “And he was the person, the leader, that we expect from him and I think he understands where he is at in his life, it’s a crucial point and we as an organization will do everything not just to help him to be the best player he can be but more importantly to be the best person he can be.”
Haslam was asked if he’s still comfortable with Watson being on Cleveland’s list.
“Absolutely,” he said. “100%”
Dee Haslam has been pressured into believing Watson is innocent.
“We respect his opinion. I think Deshaun will learn a lot more about himself in counseling,” she said.
On August 1, Watson was suspended for six games by Robinson, a former federal judge who was jointly appointed independent disciplinary officer by the league and union. As part of her decision, she called his behavior “outrageous” and “predatory.”
Watson declined to directly comment on Robinson’s claims.
“I know who I am,” he said. “I know what kind of person I am. I know the character of the person I was raised to be and always have been. The most important thing for me is to keep showing who Deshaun Watson really is and the people who meet and are around me will find out who I really am.”
Believing the suspension was too light, the league appealed and referred Watson’s case back to Goodell, who had handled all player discipline in the past. The league had previously pushed for an indefinite suspension and a hefty fine.
At owner meetings this month, Goodell said the league’s pursuit of a year-long ban was justified based on its investigation and Robinson’s findings.
“She reinforced the evidence,” Goodell said. “There were several violations that were egregious and it was predatory behavior.”
In her conclusion, Robinson cited Watson’s lack of remorse as a factor in her decision.
Watson was asked what he is apologizing for if he is innocent. “For everyone affected by this situation,” he said. “There were a lot of people who were fired.”
Watson was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior with the women from March 2020 to March 2021. In the civil lawsuits filed in Texas, the women accused him of embarrassing themselves, touching them with his penis, or kissing them against their will. One woman claimed Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson, who also settled 23 of the 24 lawsuits.
The suspension puts an end to months of speculation about whether Watson would play in 2022 for the Browns, who outbid several other teams and traded three first-round draft picks to the Texans.
The Browns believe Watson could make them a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they might struggle to simply face defending Conference champion Cincinnati in the AFC North alongside Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
All along, the Browns’ plan has been to hand their offense to veteran Jacoby Brissett, who has made 37 career starts. But it’s possible now that Cleveland is exploring other options at the quarterback.
The suspension also means Watson will be idle longer. One of the elite pro QBs, he sat out in Houston last season after demanding a trade and before the sexual allegations surfaced.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this report.
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