(AP) — Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended without pay for six games Monday for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy following accusations of sexual misconduct made against him by two dozen women in Texas, two people familiar with the decision said.
The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been publicly released. Watson, who played for four seasons with Houston before being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by women alleging sexual harassment and assault during massage therapy appointments in 2020 and 2021.
The NFL has three days to appeal the decision by disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson. The NFL Players Association already stated it would abide by her ruling. If either side appeals, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the decision, per terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The union then could try to challenge that ruling in federal court.
The league had pushed for an indefinite suspension of at least one year and at least a $5 million fine for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June.
Watson can continue to practice and play in exhibition games before his suspension begins the first week of the regular season. He can return to practice in Week 4 and would be eligible to play on Oct. 23 when the Browns play at Baltimore.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed $230 million, five-year contract, will lose only $345,000 if the suspension is unchanged because his base salary this season is $1.035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is not affected by the suspension.
After learning the ruling was imminent, the NFLPA issued a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying they will not appeal Robinson’s ruling and urged the league to follow suit.
“Every player, owner, business partner and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be tarnished based on the whims of the League office” the union said in a statement.
As he awaited the ruling, Watson has been in training camp with the Browns. He has continued to take most of the reps with the first-team offense, which will be turned over to backup Jacoby Brissett while he’s sidelined.
While the NFL pushed for a severe penalty, the union had argued Watson shouldn’t be punished at all because he was not convicted of any crime.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints brought by 10 of the women.
This was the first case for Robinson, a former U.S. district judge who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct — a role previously held by Goodell.
A three-time Pro Bowl pick with the Texans, Watson has seen his playing career stalled by the allegations that he acted inappropriately with the women during massage therapy sessions he scheduled via social media. He sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade before the allegations came out.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson has denied all wrongdoing, insisting any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. He publicly insisted his goal was to clear his name before agreeing to confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
“This case started because one woman had the fortitude to step forward and make her voice heard,” said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil lawsuits. "Her courage inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have occurred without that one brave voice. One person can make a difference.