The sorry spectacle of Deshaun Watson continues to haunt the National Football League (NFL). Today a disciplinary hearing starts with US District Court Judge Sue L. Robinson, as the disciplinary officer appointed by the NFL and players association. The outcome of this hearing will be a recommendation of discipline for Watson from his misconduct. Watson has been accused by 24 women of sexual harassment for a variety of sex acts he allegedly performed on them, with them or to them. No doubt anticipating this hearing, Watson settled 20 of these cases last week.
According to SI.com, the lawsuits “detailed graphic accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault that occurred during massage therapy sessions. The accounts range from Watson allegedly refusing to cover his genitals to the quarterback “touching [a plaintiff] with his penis and trying to force her to perform oral sex on him…The latest suit detailed that Watson masturbated and ejaculated on the plaintiff without her consent. It was expected that more lawsuits could be on the horizon.”
The discipline levied against Watson will be a critical factor in the NFL regaining any credibility in this matter. SI.com reported the NFL will ask for an ‘indefinite suspension’ so that the league can protect itself if more negative information comes out in the upcoming civil trials. Settlement negotiations for a one year agreed suspension broke down as Watson still believes he did nothing wrong. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) also points to the essential meaningless disciple given the teams owners who allegedly engaged in some form of untoward sexual conduct, with SI.com reporting “The NFLPA argued for a lighter punishment, pointing to a precedent set in cases involving three of the league’s owners—the Commanders’ Daniel Snyder, Patriots’ Robert Kraft and Cowboys’ Jerry Jones.” Unfortunately for Watson, players are always given much more severe discipline than owners (See Brady, Tom re: Deflategate).
According to the New York Times (NYT), “the first public allegation against Watson of sexual misconduct during a massage appointment was made in March 2021, resulting in an avalanche of lawsuits filed by additional women. The claims against Watson involved massage appointments he had in 2020 and early 2021, when he played for the Houston Texans. He was traded to Cleveland in March after a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, declined to indict him on criminal charges. The Browns gave Watson an unprecedented, fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract.
What about the Cleveland Browns and their signing of Deshaun Watson? How much due diligence did Cleveland do before it signed Watson to a fully guaranteed $231 million contract. After signing the contract, the NYT broke the story that Watson had used “at least 66 different women in just the 17 months from fall 2019 through spring 2021” rather than the 40 in five seasons he had previously claimed. Conor Orr, writing in SI.com, reported that the Browns had engaged in due diligence the team described as an “odyssey” to become “comfortable” with Watson. He went on to add, “If nothing in the Times report was new information to the Browns, they should come out and admit as much. If much of what surfaced in the Times report is new information to the Browns, they should come out and admit as much.” What do you think Watson told the Browns when they asked, “Is there anything else we need to know about?”
The Browns face a looming public relations disaster for their actions. If and when Watson ever takes the field for the Browns, the protests will be loud and boisterous with this person they have now gotten ‘comfortable’ with enough to give him the richest contract in the history of the NFL (did I mention it was ‘fully guaranteed’?)
Of course, there is the question of knowledge and ultimate liability of his prior employer, the Houston Texans. After the NYT story broke, the plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee announced he would be adding the Texans to his lawsuit. He did so this week. As reported by the Houston Chronicle, the Texans claim that when the story broke back in March 2021, the team “issued a statement that said the post was “the first time we heard of the matter” and the organization hoped to “learn more soon.”” However, according to the amended claim, either the Texans knew all along or failed to do so through conscious indifference.
It turns out that the Texans had provided Watson with a form non-disclosure agreement (NDA) when he said one of the message therapists raised a claim against him back in 2020. Additionally, the Texans were allegedly aware of Watson not using the Texans facility for massages with team therapists and looking on the internet for his own set of therapists even when using non-Texan facilities. Of course, there is also now the allegation that Watson used 66 different therapists over 17 as noted above. Did the Texans know, or should they have known?
We have a full cacophony of allegations of sexual harassment, actual knowledge or conscious indifference, failure to engage in substantive due diligence, likely discipline for the player but not enabling teams with an appeal to the NFL Commissioner and at least four trials in the offing. Just imagine how much worse it will get for everyone involved.