Tuesday was the most important day on Deshaun Watson’s front after he switched from Texans to Browns in March.
Late in the morning, Texas lawyer Tony Buzbee, a representative of 24 plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Watson for sexual harassment and sexual assault in the past 15 months, said 24 of the 24 cases had been settled. In doing so, Buzbee signaled a major step toward closing – one that was done almost ahead of the deal last fall, and one that should ease the task ahead of the NFL and the appointed arbitrator, former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson.
For the sake of clarity, this is not a statement of Watson’s innocence or guilt. Nor is it a statement of the seriousness of the allegations (it has been established).
But it matters.
So to reset the landscape of the Watson case, instead of answering the questions about the mailbags sent on Tuesday, we thought it wise to give you an overview of the state of affairs in every way.
HOW DOES THE PROCESS WORK?
It began with Lisa Friel, senior vice president of the NFL, who served as head of the sexual crimes department at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, conducting her investigation. When the investigation was completed, he reviewed his findings with representatives of the NFL, the NFLPA, and Watson. (I was told that Friel spoke to at least half of the applicants when the number of actions was still 22, and he also spoke to the women concerned who did not bring an action).
The next step for the NFL and the NFLPA is to make their recommendations based on the evidence gathered by Friel. From there, the case goes to Robinson, who reviews it and can hear it if he deems it necessary. After that, he makes his decision. If he finds that there has been no violation, the case is closed and there is no penalty.
If he finds a breach, he then recommends that Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee be sentenced (in which case it is not yet clear whether Goodell or the appointee will make the final decision). Goodell or a person appointed by him will then make a decision, and the league and union will have the opportunity to appeal the decision before a final decision is made.
WHERE IS THE PROCESS CURRENTLY STANDING?
The case is in Robinson’s and too much serious discipline has already been suggested. The union, which disputes Watson’s side, has cited Watson’s lack of punishment as the reason for the lack of punishment in lawsuits involving Commanders owner Dan Snyder, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
I understand that too, Robinson wants the all-season ban to be considered.
WHAT ARE THE CASES IN THIS CASE?
Ben Roethlisberger’s case is probably the closest in that a former Steelers defender was accused of sexual assault but was not charged. Roethlisberger was the first player to be banned by Goodell under his personal conduct policy without being charged with a crime – he was banned for six games at the start of the 2010 season and dropped to four games after Roethlisberger met the reduction criteria.
The Ray Rice case set the tone for other cases of domestic violence. The NFL suspended Rice for two games in July 2014 after he was accused of assaulting his fiancé. The league was criticized for beating Rice with a two-game ban this summer. Then, in September, the day after the first Sunday of the 14th season, an elevator video of Rice was released attacking her fiancé. Ravens cut him off this week, too, put him on the commissioner’s vacancy list (which had been little used before), and Rice never played in the NFL again.
Since the Rice incident, the league has mostly taken a stronger stance on violence against women. In 2017, Cowboys defender Ezekiel Elliott was sentenced to six games after the NFL investigated more than a year of Elliot’s ex-girlfriend’s domestic violence allegations in Columbus, Ohio. He reported to the police and went to the Columbus City Attorney’s Office on July 16, but Elliott was never charged with a crime.
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WHAT ARE THE IMPORTANT DATES?
I understand that one of the things that hindered the process was the wait for the pre-trial detection deadline on 30 June. The League and Robinson would, of course, like to have as much information as possible before a decision is made, and at least that deadline would give those involved more peace of mind that new developments – although still possible – are less likely.
I think that this deadline will now become less important if there are only four active cases.
The next checkpoint on the calendar would be the opening of a training camp at the end of July. Browns open camp on July 30, but not in the league is to take a decision by then. In recent years, however, the league has seen the start of the camp as an unofficial celebration of the return of football. As such, it makes sense that the constantly PR-conscious NFL would like to close the Watson case (at least for now), even though it’s not too completely controllable (Robinson has a say).
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR WATSON TO BE A TRAINING CAMP?
History tells us that this will only happen if it is an annual suspension. Every other out-of-season ban I remember, including Roethlisberger’s – be it personal behavior, PEDs, recreational drugs or whatever – took part in the player’s camp, with the ban coming into effect at the beginning of week 1. So if Watson is banned from playing in the Six, Eight, 10 or 12 games, he would probably be allowed to take part in the camp and he will be banned from the day of the match.
IS THE LIST OF COMMISSION EXEMPTIONS STILL IN PLAY?
According to the rules, this can be the case – Goodell has a huge amount of freedom to take a player on paid leave. This means that if he did, he would keep his word. He stated at an annual meeting in March that, in the absence of criminal charges, he would not use the released list and that Watson would either be suspended or punished.
It was thought that Goodell may have recently turned around in view of a New York Times Jenny Vrentas reports that Watson booked massage therapy sessions with 66 women for 17 months and the appearance of the 23rd and 24th plaintiffs. However, I think that resolving 20 out of 24 cases will make it less likely. In my opinion, a ban on playing with a league would be more likely to allow the penalty to be changed if new information justifies it.
WILL THIS AFFECT BRUNA STATE IN BAKER MAYFIELD?
I don’t see Mayfield returning to the Browns voluntarily and being a good soldier (even if it may be the best step in his career). And the team hasn’t complied with Mayfield’s insurance policy – he’s still in Cleveland because there hasn’t been a team ready to take his $ 18.8 million guarantee by 2022. If the Browns had played with him, he would not have already offered to take a significant portion of that money, as I am told, to facilitate trade.
So no matter how long Watson is, Jacoby Brissett is probably Brown’s defender.
IF THE REMAINING FOUR ACTIONS ARE NOT MATCHED, WHAT?
The cases are likely to continue until 2023. It is unlikely that they will be heard in July and the parties have already agreed to a moratorium on lawsuits going to court from 1 August to 1 March. Which means there is a decent chance it will last for a long time.
WHAT FINANCIAL STATEMENTS DOES WATSON HAVE?
Watson earned $ 10 million on last year’s paid vacation with Jeans. His new deal with Browns makes the ban on gaming in 2022 relatively easy, with a base salary of just $ 1.035 million this year. He would therefore lose $ 57,500 per game if he were banned. He has already been paid a $ 44.965 million signing bonus. The league may also be fined for playing.
If there is a second ban in 2023 – if new information comes to light in court – it could look different, as his basic salary for this season is $ 46 million.
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