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Legal analysis of the Deshaun Watson Cases (NFL)


After almost 18 months of accusation, speculation and media scrutiny, the legal proceedings of Deshaun Watson’s alleged sexual assault and misconduct appear to be reaching their conclusion. The National Football League (NFL) star quarterback has settled 23 of the 24 civil lawsuits brought against him and does not face criminal charges having had two grand juries decline to indict him. We eagerly await the outcome of an independent NFL investigation, which will provide clarity on the consequences Watson will face within the football arena. The decision by independent arbiter Sue L. Robinson to grant Watson a six-game suspension has been appealed by the NFL. They are urging for a longer suspension; the appeal currently being heard by former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey. This article will introduce the allegations made against Watson, before expanding into a detailed account of the events of the case and their impact on the NFL’s future.

The Allegations

Allegations of Watson’s misconduct against women were first made public in March 2021 in Harris County, Texas. A total of 22 civil lawsuits had been filed by April 5th 2021, with ten women filing police complaints in July of 2021 (eight of which were among the 22 who had also filed civil lawsuits, an additional two women filing police reports). All 24 of the women were massage therapists who had worked with Watson between March 2020 and March 2021 during his time at the Houston Texans.

The plaintiffs’ attorney - Tony Buzbee - stated that the complaints largely echoed one another’s claims of sexual misconduct and coercive behaviour against Watson. The 22 civil lawsuits claimed that during massage sessions, Watson wore minimal covering over his naked body, groped his therapists and coerced them to touch him in a sexual manner, moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis. Additionally, in both criminal cases it was alleged that Watson pressured his therapists to perform oral sex during the sessions, with further claims of groping.

Timeline of the Case

Following initial allegations against Watson, there was a firm and immediate response from fans, brands and athletes within the NFL. Just two days after Buzbee filed the 22 civil lawsuits, Nike had suspended their endorsement deal with Watson. The quarterback had signed with Nike during his final season playing college football at Clemson in 2017, continuing his partnership with the sportswear brand through his professional career. Nike’s suspension was quickly followed by that of other sponsors who held high-profile endorsement deals with Watson, including Reliant Energy, Beats by Dre and Texas-based grocer H-E-B. Having had estimated off-field earnings of $8 million in 2020 (as reported by Forbes), Watson’s most significant sponsors stated that they had no plans to renew their deals.

Initial discourse in April of 2021 between Buzbee and Watson’s legal team (led by Rusty Hardin) centred around the anonymity of the plaintiffs. All lawsuits were initially filed under pseudonyms as to keep private the names of the women suing Watson. Given the public nature of the case, it was argued that to release the names of the plaintiffs would create unnecessary security and privacy risks. In response, Hardin outlined that without knowing the identity of the individuals putting forth their allegations, he was unable to properly defend his client, as to speculate and risk misidentifying possible plaintiffs would be irresponsible. On the 8th April 2021, Hardin put forward a request that the Court mandate one of the plaintiffs to identify herself, citing two Texas Rules of Civil Procedure that don’t allow civil lawsuits under a pseudonym. One requires plaintiffs to state their names if they are known, the other requires the defence to receive fair notice of claims. In sexual assault cases, state law only offers minors an exception to these rules. It was ruled that 13 plaintiffs had to resubmit their civil lawsuits with their names. Within a week of this ruling all plaintiffs had voluntarily identified themselves and resubmitted their lawsuits.

On the 26th July 2021, the number of women to file police complaints increased to ten. With 22 civil lawsuits and a further ten police complaints being investigated by the Houston Police Department, Watson sat out the entirety of the 2021/22 NFL season. There was speculation of a possible trade, with most interest being shown by the Miami Dolphins and the Carolina Panthers. Head coaches and general managers across the league however, were reluctant to express firm interest or to engage in meaningful trade negotiations with the quarterback, given the ongoing investigation and possible criminal charges.

The police investigation continued for a further eight months into March 2022, with a grand jury convening on the 11th March to decide if Watson was to face criminal charges relating to nine of the police complaints. The quarterback was cleared by the grand jury, who declined to indict him on charges relating to the sexual misconduct allegations against him in Harris County. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s decision not to prosecute increased the chances of a trade taking place.

A week later, on the 18th March 2022, a deal had been done and the Houston Texans had traded Watson to the Cleveland Browns. The deal saw the Browns trade a record haul of future draft picks to the Texans, offering the quarterback the NFL’s first fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. At the time of the trade, Watson was still facing 22 civil lawsuits and awaiting the decision of a Brazoria County grand jury. The controversial trade by the Browns took place in large part because of the suspension they expected Watson to receive from the NFL. In two previous cases of sexual misconduct (albeit with fewer allegations) former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot both received six-game suspensions. The contract of the trade was structured such that, if Watson – in line with the above precedent - received a six-game ban, he would still receive $45 million in a fully guaranteed signing bonus.

Watson’s tenth police complaint was addressed four days later, as a grand jury in Brazoria County declined to file charges. Following his response to the decision, wherein the Brown’s quarterback “proclaims he has no regrets and has done nothing wrong”, two additional plaintiffs decided to file civil suits accusing him of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Both cases outlined similar accounts to that of the other lawsuits, bringing the total of active civil lawsuits to 24.

On the 8th June 2022, Buzbee announced that the Texans (Watson’s former franchise) were being added as defendants to the lawsuits against Watson and sued for negligence. He outlined that the team had “facilitated Deshaun Watson’s conduct”, indirectly arranging for some of the massages to take place at a local fitness club and providing a non-disclosure agreement to be signed by several of the massage therapists. Two weeks later, Buzbee stated that settlements had been reached in 20 of the 24 civil lawsuits, declining to provide any detail on the settlements. At the time of writing this article, a total of 23 civil lawsuits have been settled, a single outstanding case remains.

Following the negligence claims made against the franchise, the Texans announced that they had agreed on settlements with 30 women who made, or intended to make, claims accusing Watson of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. The terms of these settlements also remain confidential, with the Texans publicly stating that they were not aware of Watson’s misconduct, the settlements not acting as an admission of wrongdoing, instead “a clear stand against any form of sexual assault and misconduct."

Once both grand juries had made the decision not to indict Watson on charges related to sexual misconduct, the NFL began its own independent investigation to discipline Watson within the league. The 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) outlined details of a new disciplinary process to be used for issues relating to the personal conduct policy. The process had been agreed upon by both the NFL and the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA), indicating that a three-day hearing was to be held behind closed doors, between the NFL and the NFLPA’s appointed disciplinary officer, Sue L. Robinson.

Lisa Friel and Jennifer Gaffney, former prosecutors who now oversee the NFL’s personal conduct investigations, were able to present a report which detailed the accusations against Watson. Unlike a formal law enforcement investigation, they did not have subpoena power. They could not compel the accusers or witnesses to cooperate and had limited access to police and legal documents. It is believed that the NFL was only able to speak to ten of the women who filed lawsuits against Watson and were only able to present the accounts of four women. At the hearing, NFL representatives were seeking an indefinite suspension a minimum of one year long, with Watson’s return dependent on the quarterback meeting certain conditions.

In a 15-page decision released by Robinson, Watson was handed down a six-game suspension. The judge wrote that “Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the report”, but from the (as we understand) non-exhaustive evidence presented, believed a six-game suspension to be appropriate. She noted the non-violent nature of the allegations to be significant.

With an understanding of the significance this case holds in setting precedent for future sexual misconduct allegation in the sport, there was strong support for a lengthier suspension. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had been public in urging for a more severe punishment for Watson’s “predatory behaviour”. As agreed in the 2020 CBA, Goodell has the right to appeal the decision, either hearing this appeal himself or selecting an alternative arbiter. With the new process being carried out for the first time, however, Goodell was conscious not to delegitimise the CBA process. The new process was introduced and structured as to reduce the control of the NFL Commissioner, with whom total responsibility for disciplining players in line with the personal conduct policy had previously been held.

Within three days, Goodell and the NFL had appealed the disciplinary decision handed down by Robinson, seeking a longer suspension. The NFL Commissioner appointed a designee to hear the appeal, selecting former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey. Harvey has acted in this role previously, as the NFL Commissioner’s designee in other arbitrations. Harvey is currently in the position to hear the NFL’s appeal and assess whether to uphold the six-game suspension as presented by Robinson or enforce a longer suspension.

Present Situation

We currently have no indication as to when Harvey will present his findings. Watson has been present at the Browns training camp and took the field in their first pre-season game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, taking part in his first game since January 2021. If upheld, Robinson’s ruling would see the Browns quarterback side-lined for the start of his new franchise’s 2022/23 campaign. Once Harvey has made public his ruling on the appeal, we will know the extent to which Watson will contribute to the upcoming NFL season. It is widely understood however, that this ruling will hold greater significance in setting precedent for future cases, and in maintaining the integrity of the NFL’s disciplinary process.

Article written by Thomas Anderton, Durham University Undergraduate.

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