BEREA, Ohio -- Deshaun Watson said that he has never disrespected women and that he was surprised by the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct that have been made against him.
"I know these allegations [are] very, very serious," Watson said. "But I've never assaulted any woman. I never disrespected any woman."
The Cleveland Browns introduced Watson as their starting quarterback Friday in a news conference.
On March 18, the Browns acquired Watson in a trade with the Houston Texans before signing him to a new five-year contract worth $230 million guaranteed, the most guaranteed money on a single contract in NFL history by $80 million.
The Browns traded for Watson while he still faces civil lawsuits from 22 women that allege sexual assault and inappropriate conduct. The attorney for the plaintiffs, Tony Buzbee, told ESPN that the Browns never reached out to him or spoke to any of his clients during their investigation, which the Browns have called "extensive."
Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry said legal counsel advised the team against contacting the women directly "out of concern it would be considered interfering with a criminal investigation." Berry said the team did use independent investigators but would not say whether those investigators contacted the women.
"I'll say the investigators that we hired were able to get a full perspective of all the cases," Berry answered. "I'm not going to go into necessarily the details of everything the investigators did, but they got a full perspective for all the criminal and civil cases."
Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who met with Watson in person in Houston before trading for him, were not at the news conference but held a Zoom call with media later in the day.
"In research we did directly, in research third parties did, we got comfortable with the situation," said Jimmy Haslam, who added that the idea to acquire Watson originated from the front office, not ownership.
Haslam said the investigators did a "tremendous amount of work to where we became comfortable as an organization," though some of the women have yet to give their sworn testimony.
"One of the things that has impressed us about Deshaun is his continual drive to get better in all parts of his life, and we think that will continue, if not grow, as he joins our organization," Haslam said.
Dee Haslam said they spent a lot of time "working through this [decision] as a family."
"We knew going into this that this could be really hard on individuals and could trigger emotions from individuals who have been through sexual abuse," she said. "I just have to tell you, our compassion for those individuals is really deep. We know how hard this has been on them."
On Thursday, a second grand jury in Texas declined to indict Watson after considering an accusation of sexual misconduct, the Brazoria County district attorney said. Earlier this month, a grand jury in Harris County, where Houston is located, declined to indict Watson on criminal charges after a police investigation sparked by the lawsuits. The allegations in the lawsuits range from touching women with his genitals to forced oral sex. Eight of the women who sued Watson filed criminal complaints against him with Houston police and had been set to appear before the grand jury.
Watson said Friday it's "not my intent" to settle any of the 22 civil cases. Watson has two more depositions scheduled for next week, Buzbee told ESPN.
"I understand the whole circumstance is very difficult, especially for the women's side of the fans in this community; I'm not naive to that," Watson said.
"The things that are off the field right now that came up caught me by surprise because I never did anything that these people are alleging."