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Deshaun Watson suspended six games for violating NFL’s personal conduct policy

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, under a ruling Monday by the disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association.

The length of the suspension was confirmed by a person familiar with the ruling by Sue L. Robinson, a former US district judge.

The suspension is without pay and comes after more than two dozen women filed civil lawsuits accusing Watson of sexual misconduct. Watson has denied the allegations and has not been charged with a crime. He has reached settlements in 23 of the 24 then-active lawsuits that were filed against him. Anthony Buzbee, the attorney for the women, announced the latest three settlements Monday.

Robinson made the ruling after conducting a three-day hearing in late June in Delaware. The NFL argued to Robinson for an indefinite suspension of at least one full season, requiring Watson to apply for reinstatement, according to a person familiar with the case. The NFLPA is believed to have argued for no suspension. Robinson made her ruling after each side submitted a post-hearing brief.

Either the league or the NFLPA can appeal Robinson’s ruling to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or to a person he designates. The appeal would have to be filed in writing within three days. The NFLPA and Watson said in a joint statement Sunday night that they would abide by Robinson’s ruling and urged the NFL to do the same, without an appeal to Goodell.

The initial disciplinary action comes as a result of a process that was revised in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA that was completed in 2020. The case would have ended, with no appeal possible, if Robinson had ruled Watson did not violate the personal conduct policy.

NFL will argue for ‘significant’ suspension of Deshaun Watson

Before the new procedures were put in place, Goodell had been in charge of both making initial disciplinary rulings and resolving any appeals. The system was revised via collective bargaining, at the behest of the NFLPA, after a series of clashes between the league and the union in player-disciplinary cases, some of which spilled into courtrooms through litigation filed by the NFLPA and players.

The union scored some initial court victories in disciplinary cases involving quarterback Tom Brady, then with the New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, delaying the onsets of their suspensions. But their suspensions were ultimately upheld, and Goodell’s authority in player discipline generally was affirmed through appeals-court decisions.

Watson was represented in these proceedings by his attorney, Rusty Hardin, and the players’ union. Jeffrey Kessler, an outside attorney for the NFLPA, participated in Watson’s defense. There has been speculation that Watson and the NFLPA could file a lawsuit if Watson faces a full-season suspension when the league’s appeals process is completed.

The league is believed to have focused on five cases in its presentation to Robinson, one of which was reportedly discarded during the hearing. The NFLPA argued the evidence presented to Robinson in those cases did not warrant the lengthy suspension the league sought. The union had planned to cite the NFL’s decisions not to suspend owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys for incidents involving them and their teams, a person on Watson’s side of the case said before the hearing.

Deshaun Watson agrees to settle 20 of the 24 civil lawsuits against him

The personal conduct policy allows for a player to be disciplined without criminal charges. In March, two grand juries in Texas declined to charge Watson with a crime.

The women’s allegations against Watson in the civil lawsuits include making inappropriate comments, exposing himself and forcing his penis on women’s hands during massage therapy sessions. One of the 25 lawsuits was withdrawn.

“After lengthy and intense negotiations, I can confirm that, late [Sunday] night, our team resolved three of the four remaining civil cases with Deshaun Watson,” Buzbee said in an email Monday. “We will continue to discuss the remaining case with Watson’s legal team, as appropriate.”

In Monday’s email, delivered before Robinson’s ruling was announced, Buzbee wrote of the NFL’s disciplinary process: “Although some of my clients do have strong feelings in that regard, I have nothing meaningful to say about that process. I’ve said in the beginning that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process are very different.”

Buzbee said when he announced the previous 20 settlements with Watson that the terms would remain confidential. The NFL said when those settlements were announced that they would have “no impact” on the league’s disciplinary process. Buzbee also has announced settlements by 30 women with the Houston Texans, Watson’s former team. One of the women had filed a lawsuit against the Texans accusing the team of enabling Watson’s alleged misconduct.

Lisa Friel, the NFL’s special counsel for investigations, oversaw the league’s investigation. She is the former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The NFL interviewed at least 11 of the women accusing Watson, according to a person familiar with the investigation, along with other women. The league’s representatives interviewed Watson over several days in Houston earlier this year.

“When it comes down to the league and their decision, we have to respect that and let them do their process and finish their investigation and report,” Watson said during a mid-June news conference at an offseason practice for the Browns. “And like I said before, I’ve talked to the league. I’ve been honest and told them truthfully of every question that they asked. So I can’t really have [any] check on that.”

The Browns completed a trade with the Texans for Watson this offseason and signed him to a new contract worth a guaranteed $230 million over five seasons. That deal included a base salary of $1,035 million for the 2022 season.

Watson did not play last season, as the Texans placed him on their game-day inactive list on a weekly basis. He was not suspended and was paid his entire salary.

Watson reported to Browns training camp and has been participating in practices. The team also added veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the offseason. Coach Kevin Stefanski has said that Brissett would take over as the Browns’ starter if Watson is unavailable.

“It’s important for me, for all of us, to make sure we control what we can control,” Stefanski said at a recent training camp practice.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield, the former top selection in the NFL draft who was the Browns’ starter for the past four seasons, was traded early last month to the Carolina Panthers. Mayfield had requested a trade and issued what amounted to a public farewell to Cleveland amid the Browns’ trade pursuit of Watson in March.

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