Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will serve a six-game suspension without pay but will not be fined for violating the league's personal conduct policy following accusations of sexual misconduct, disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson ruled Monday.
Robinson issued her ruling in a comprehensive 16-page report. She wrote that the NFL recommended Watson be suspended for the entire 2022 regular season and postseason.
The NFL Players Association and the league have until Thursday at 9 a.m. ET to file a written appeal of Robinson's ruling. In a statement Sunday night, the union made it clear that it will "stand by" her decision and urged the NFL to do the same. The league, in a statement Monday, said it was determining its next steps.
If an appeal is made, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee "will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute,'' per terms of Article 46 in the league's collective bargaining agreement.
In relying on precedent, Robinson sought to differentiate between violent and non-violent sexual conduct. Robinson concluded that Watson's conduct "does not fall into the category of violent conduct that would require the minimum 6-game suspension" which the league had established as "by far the most commonly-imposed discipline for domestic or gendered violence and sexual acts."
The ruling relied on 32 previous suspensions under the league's personal conduct policy since 2015. In 21 of those instances, the league suspended the player for six games, including the cases of Derrius Guice and Johnny Manziel. Greg Hardy was suspended for four games.
The longest suspension -- 10 games for Jarron Jones in 2021 -- involved a criminal plea and multiple incidents of domestic violence. The two eight-game suspensions -- of Kareem Hunt in 2019 and Mark Walton in 2020 -- also took into account multiple incidents of domestic violence.
Robinson wrote that "the NFL carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report. Mr. Watson violated the Policy in this regard."
Robinson also found that Watson's "predatory conduct cast 'a negative light on the League and its players.'"
Robinson ruled that Watson is "to limit his massage therapy to Club-directed sessions and Club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career, and so [I] impose this mandate as a condition to his reinstatement." She also ruled that Watson is "to have no adverse involvement with law enforcement, and must not commit any additional violations of the Policy."
Watson is eligible to return for the Browns' Oct. 23 game at Baltimore. Sources close to the quarterback told ESPN's Dianna Russini that they believe six games is too much, but they respect the decision.
Watson was at practice later Monday, waving toward cheering fans while he and his teammates began their stretching period in Berea, Ohio.
He has continually denied all wrongdoing and has said he has no regrets for any of his actions during the massage sessions. Watson also said he cooperated with the NFL's investigation and "answered every question truthfully" that he was asked by the league's investigators.
"We respect Judge Robinson's decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process," Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement Monday. "We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him."
In Robinson's ruling, she noted that one of the aggravating factors in determining Watson's discipline was his "lack of expressed remorse." She noted that among the mitigating factors were him being a first-time offender and his "excellent reputation in his community prior to these events."
Watson has been accused of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions in civil lawsuits filed by 25 women. The encounters alleged in the lawsuits took place from March 2020 to March 2021, while Watson was a member of the Houston Texans. One of the 25 lawsuits was dropped following a judge's ruling in April 2021 that the plaintiffs needed to amend their petitions to disclose their names. In June, Watson settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits he was facing; on Monday, he agreed to settle three of the remaining four, according to Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women suing Watson.
Buzbee told ESPN's John Barr that Ashley Solis, the first woman to sue Watson and the first to go public with her name and story, settled her case.
Last month, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who made claims or were prepared to make them against the organization for its alleged role regarding the allegations against Watson.
Robinson heard arguments from the league, the union and Watson's attorney during a three-day hearing held in her home state of Delaware in late June. The NFL had been pushing for a suspension of at least a year, while the players' union and Watson's attorney argued that the quarterback should not be suspended at all. The sides discussed a potential settlement all the way up through the hearing, but they could not agree to a deal.
In the days leading up to Robinson's decision, the league and Watson's side engaged in further settlement talks, sources told ESPN's Dan Graziano, but neither side ever felt they were close to an agreement. The most Watson's side indicated it was willing to offer was a suspension in the range of six to eight games, according to sources. The best the league indicated it was willing to offer was a 12-game suspension and a significant fine -- in the range of $8 million, sources said.
If the league appeals and his suspension is upheld, Watson will still be able to participate in practices and games during the preseason. He will also be allowed to return to the Browns to practice during the second half of the suspension, in Week 4, according to the CBA. But he will not be allowed to be with the team during the first half of the suspension.
Since no additional fine was levied, Watson is slated to miss six of his $57,500 game checks in 2022 for a total of $345,000 lost off his $1.035 million base salary. Watson's Browns contract guarantees him a league-high $230 million, with a base salary that will jump to $46 million in 2023 and a $44.965 million signing bonus.
Although two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson earlier this year, the NFL has been investigating whether he violated its personal conduct policy since 2021. The league interviewed Watson over multiple days earlier this summer. The NFL's investigators also spoke to several of the women.
The Browns traded for Watson in March, sending three first-round draft picks to the Texans. Cleveland then gave Watson a new five-year contract, the richest deal in NFL history for any player.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said at the start of training camp last week that Jacoby Brissett would become Cleveland's starter in the event of a Watson suspension. Through the first week of camp, Watson took the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense. Speaking Monday, Stefanski said the Browns have a plan in how they'll handle snaps going forward, "and we'll stick to that again until more information becomes available."
Asked if he had read Robinson's full report, Stefanski noted that he hadn't but planned to later Monday.
"Deshaun has said it: He's working to be the best version of himself," Stefanski said. "He's said that publicly, he's said that privately, and I believe that."