The NFL is seeking an indefinite suspension of at least one year plus a fine in appealing a disciplinary officer’s decision to suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy, a person familiar with the filing told The Associated Press.
The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter isn't public knowledge, also said Watson would be required to undergo treatment before he could be reinstated. The league initially recommended an $8 million fine and asked during settlement negotiations for at least a $5 million fine plus a 12-game suspension that never materialized, another person involved in the talks told the AP.
The NFL's appeal gives Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates authority to impose a stiffer penalty. League spokesman Brian McCarthy said it's still to be determined whether Goodell or someone else will hear the appeal.
Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson issued her ruling Monday after Watson was accused by two dozen women in Texas of sexual misconduct during massage treatments while he played for the Houston Texans.
In her 16-page report, Robinson described Watson's behavior as “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL."
But her punishment fell far short of the NFL's request. So, the league on Wednesday exercised its right to appeal, per the collective bargaining agreement.
The players’ union has until the end of business Friday to respond in writing. The union could challenge the appeal ruling in federal court, setting the stage for a prolonged fight. Both sides could still reach a settlement to avoid a lengthy battle. The NFLPA didn't immediately comment on the appeal.
McCarthy said there's no timeline for Goodell or his designee to make a ruling.
According to the league's personal conduct policy, the appeal will be processed on an expedited basis. Also, it will be “limited to consideration of the terms of discipline imposed” and “based upon a review of the existing record without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered.”
The policy also states the "decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, will be final and binding on all parties.”
This is the first time since the new CBA was signed in 2020 that the league and the NFLPA turned to a jointly appointed disciplinary officer to determine violations of the personal conduct policy. In the past, Goodell has served as judge and jury to impose penalties on players.
By appealing, the NFL is giving that power back to Goodell, who can chose another person to levy any punishment.
A league official told the AP before Watson’s three-day disciplinary hearing concluded in June that the NFL wanted to avoid an appeal.
But the league proceeded with one amid a backlash from some fans and intense public pressure in the media. Beyond that, there were other factors.
A person familiar with the league’s thinking cited Watson’s lack of expressed remorse, which Robinson noted in her report, the fact he didn’t report the first incident when it happened and he wasn’t truthful with the league’s investigators.
Robinson questioned Watson’s testimony in her report, saying: “It is difficult to give weight to a complete denial when weighed against the credible testimony of the investigators who interviewed the therapists and other third parties.”
Watson, who played four seasons with the Texans before sitting out last season and then being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by the women who alleged sexual harassment or assault during massage treatments in 2020 and 2021. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints brought by 10 of the women.
Robinson concluded that Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy: sexual assault; conduct posing a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.
She declined to suspend Watson for a full year based on precedents and the league’s current policy. But Robinson concluded a longer suspension could be justified if it was already outlined in the personal conduct policy.
“While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players,” Robinson wrote in her report.
Watson has continued to practice with the Browns while awaiting resolution to his case, which has raised questions about the league’s handling of off-field player behavior, inconsistencies in its personal conduct policy and its overall support of women.
The Browns have been in a state of limbo as well, not knowing when or if Watson will be able to play this season.
Cleveland traded three first-round picks to Houston for the three-time Pro Bowl QB and signed him to a five-year, $230 million contract.
Watson will lose only $345,000 if the suspension is unchanged because his base salary this season is $1.035 million.
Watson didn’t comment to the AP when asked for a reaction to the league’s decision to appeal. He was then escorted inside the Browns’ facility by a member of the team’s security staff.
The three-time Pro Bowler had just wrapped up Cleveland’s seventh practice of training camp and was still on the field when the league’s appeal announcement was posted.
Watson had a conversation with Peter Jean-Baptiste, the team’s vice president of communications, before spending a few minutes signing autographs for military members and their families.
He was embraced by one woman who said she told Watson to “stay strong.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.