During his introductory news conference with the Cleveland Browns on March 25, quarterback Deshaun Watson was asked whether he'd attempt to settle the civil lawsuits filed against him that accused him of inappropriate sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
"That's not my intent," Watson said then. "My intent is to continue to clear my name as much as possible, and that's what I'm focused on."
On Tuesday, Watson and his legal team reversed course.
Tony Buzbee, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told ESPN in a statement that 20 of the 24 cases against Watson had been settled. The other four, which include Ashley Solis, the first woman to sue Watson, have not been settled and remain on track to go to trial next year, according to Buzbee.
Although two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson earlier this year, the NFL is investigating whether he violated its code of conduct. The league has yet to give a timetable for when it might make a ruling. But in a statement to ESPN, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said Watson's settlements will have "no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process."
With 20 cases against Watson now settled, what's next for the Browns, the NFL and Watson, both on and off the field? ESPN reporters Sarah Barshop, Dan Graziano and Jake Trotter delve into those questions:
What happened Tuesday with the 20 settled lawsuits?
More than a year after the first lawsuit was filed against Watson, Buzbee announced in a statement that all but four of the lawsuits have settled. Buzbee said his law firm is "working through the paperwork related to those settlements." Once the paperwork is complete, Buzbee said, those cases will be dismissed. Buzbee said in the statement the terms and the amounts of the settlements are confidential, and he won't have any further comment on the cases.
It's unclear whether the confidentiality agreement extends just to the settlement figures or if it also restricts either the plaintiffs or Watson from talking about the specifics of the lawsuits. In April 2021, Buzbee and Watson's attorney, Rusty Hardin, both acknowledged settlement talks broke down because the sides couldn't agree on whether a non-disclosure agreement would be included. -- Barshop
There are four plaintiffs who didn't settle. What do we know about those situations?
We don't know anything outside of the statement Buzbee released. When reached by ESPN's John Barr, the attorney declined to expand on the four plaintiffs. -- Barshop
Are those four cases likely to go to trial? If so, when?
Buzbee and Hardin have agreed not to go to trial from Aug. 1, 2022, until March 1, 2023. While Bubzee has acknowledged there were conversations about Solis' case going to trial before Aug. 1, at this point it seems more likely these trials occur after the 2022 season. -- Barshop
Where does the NFL's investigation into Watson stand?
The NFL has consistently declined to give a timeline for completion of its investigation, though conversations with various sources close to the situation indicate there's at least a chance it's nearing its conclusion. There are some in the league who would prefer to wait and see whether any new information comes out from the lawsuits still pending or any others to come before imposing discipline, in case something comes up that would make the league's proposed punishment look insufficient. There are others arguing for a quicker resolution so that the uncertainty of the situation doesn't carry into the regular season. The Browns are hoping to know something before training camp begins late next month, but they do not know whether they will get their wish. -- Graziano
What happens after the league concludes its investigation?
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, any recommendation the NFL makes about discipline for Watson -- be it a fine, a suspension or both -- would then go before retired U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson, who serves as a jointly appointed (by the NFL and the NFLPA) discipline officer. Robinson is likely to conduct her own hearing, involving an interview with Watson and other witnesses. This means even once the league makes a decision on whether and how to discipline Watson, the process may take a while to resolve. If the league imposes discipline, Robinson upholds it and Watson is unsatisfied with the decision, he can appeal the fine and/or suspension. In that case, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would hear the appeal and make a final decision. -- Graziano
Do these settlements change the timeline or investigation?
Absolutely not. The NFL made this clear in the statement it issued within minutes of Buzbee's announcement Tuesday.
The league continues to stress the collectively bargained aspect of the process and the fact the league's investigative team, headed by Lisa Friel, is conducting the investigation while Goodell awaits the decision by his investigators and, eventually, Robinson.
Is it possible the settlement of 20 of the pending civil suits could speed up the league's investigation, given the reduction in the number of cases that could potentially go to trial and reveal new information? Sure. But with four still pending, there remains the possibility information could come out that the league's investigation did not uncover on its own. -- Graziano
Where is the NFLPA in all of this?
The players' union has been working with Watson and his attorneys on a plan to contest any potential discipline in front of Robinson. The union recently enlisted the help of its longtime counsel Jeffrey Kessler in this effort, and if Friel's team issues a recommendation of discipline, the NFLPA and its attorneys will likely argue on behalf of Watson for a reduction in said discipline. The NFLPA, according to sources, is expecting some sort of discipline, likely a suspension, though it remains anyone's guess how long that suspension would be. -- Graziano
Is Watson likely to be suspended?
All signs certainly point in that direction. The situation is unprecedented in a lot of ways, as it's the first potential discipline case to be conducted since the new CBA (and its establishment of the independent arbitrator) was signed in the spring of 2020. But based on all the behind-the-scenes conversations I've had over the past few months, there is a widespread expectation the league's investigation will result in at least some suspension for Watson under the personal conduct policy.
Whether Robinson, who is new to the process, agrees with the league's recommendation is the wild card. It's entirely possible the league could recommend discipline, and Robinson, after her own review of the case, could rule that none is warranted. While the answer to the question has to be yes, given what we know so far, it must be mentioned that there remains a nonzero chance Watson does not get suspended once the process is complete. -- Graziano
Does anything change for the Browns?
This really changes nothing for Cleveland. It seems unlikely these settlements will help reduce Watson's impending suspension. The Browns now turn more of their focus to the NFL decision -- whenever that does come. -- Trotter
Who will play if Watson isn't available? Any chance it's Baker Mayfield?
This is the NFL, and this is the Browns, so never say never. But sources have said Mayfield has no interest in playing another down for the Browns again, especially after a team source told ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen the Browns were looking for "an adult" to replace Mayfield at quarterback during their pursuit of Watson in March. The Browns have given no indication they have any interest in Mayfield playing another down for them, either. Both sides have moved on, even if Mayfield remains on the roster. And so, in the event Watson is suspended, Cleveland would plan to move forward with Jacoby Brissett, whom the team signed earlier this offseason and who has 37 career starts in the league, as its starting quarterback. -- Trotter
If Watson is suspended, can he participate in training camp?
Unless the league specifies otherwise, Watson would be allowed to participate in training camp, according to the bylaws of the new CBA. Watson would be eligible to play in Cleveland's three preseason games as well. If suspended, Watson would start serving that suspension once the regular season begins. That would include being suspended from participating in practices during the first half of the suspension. During the second half of a suspension, a player "will be permitted to attend the club facility and participate in limited activities," according to the CBA. -- Trotter