The NFL on Wednesday appealed the six-game suspension for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, seeking a tougher penalty under the league’s personal conduct policy in the wake of disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s ruling Monday.
In a statement, the league said it notified the NFL Players Association that it would appeal and then filed its brief Wednesday afternoon.
The league said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will determine who will hear the appeal. Under the collective bargaining agreement, Goodell has the option to consider the appeal himself or can appoint a designee to do so.
A source told ESPN that the NFL is appealing for an indefinite suspension that would be a minimum of one year (as it had previously sought), a monetary fine (which Watson was not levied by Robinson) and treatment that the star quarterback must undergo.
The union also had the right to appeal Robinson’s ruling, although it issued a statement Sunday night saying it would “stand by her decision” and not appeal, regardless of the result, and called on the league to agree to the same.
The NFLPA has until Friday to file a written response to the NFL’s appeal. Sources told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington on Wednesday that the NFLPA was preparing to sue the NFL in federal court if it appealed Robinson’s decision.
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Once the NFLPA files its response, Goodell will decide to hear the appeal himself or appoint a designee — a source told Darlington on Wednesday that he has yet to formalize a decision on who will do it — and that will be followed by a hearing date.
Any appeal must be limited to arguments from the evidentiary record from the three-day hearing before Robinson in late June and “without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered.” It will be processed on an “expedited basis,” according to the NFL’s personal conduct policy, although NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said there is no timeline for Goodell or his designee to make a ruling.
Whenever the ruling is made, it will be final and binding to all parties.
Watson was on the field when the news broke at about 4 p.m. ET Wednesday. A team official had to go out onto the field and inform him of the NFL’s decision.
The Browns had no comment on the NFL’s decision Wednesday.
Robinson issued the six-game suspension Monday, writing in her 16-page report 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.”
She also found that Watson engaged in conduct that posed “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.”
Robinson wrote that the NFL recommended that Watson be suspended for the entire 2022 regular season and postseason.
While relying on precedent, Robinson sought to differentiate between violent and nonviolent sexual conduct. Robinson concluded that Watson’s conduct “does not fall into the category of violent conduct that would require the minimum six-game suspension” the league had established as “by far the most commonly-imposed discipline for domestic or gendered violence and sexual acts.”
Robinson also found that Watson’s “predatory conduct cast ‘a negative light on the League and its players.'”
Watson has been accused of sexual assault and other 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 after 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. He agreed Monday 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, had settled her case. Buzbee notified ESPN that he has scheduled a news conference for Thursday afternoon and that several of his clients, including Solis, might speak.
Watson has denied all wrongdoing and has said he has no regrets for any of his actions during the massage sessions. Watson 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.”
Robinson, however, wrote in her report that one aggravating factor in determining Watson’s discipline was his “lack of expressed remorse.” She noted that mitigating factors included him being a first-time offender and his “excellent reputation in his community prior to these events.”
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.
In the days leading up to Robinson’s decision, the NFL and Watson’s side engaged in 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, sources said. 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. Since no fine was levied, Watson is currently 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 contract with the Browns guarantees him a league-record $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. Robinson noted in her report that the NFL said it interviewed 12 women who sued Watson, but Buzbee told ESPN’s First Take on Tuesday that the league interviewed only 10 of his clients.
If the six-game suspension is upheld after the NFL’s appeal, 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. He will not be allowed to be with the team during the first half of the suspension.
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 that was 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 be 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 will handle snaps going forward, “and we’ll stick to that again until more information becomes available.” Stefanski said Tuesday that he had read Robinson’s report but wouldn’t comment on its findings, saying only that he would be “respectful” of Robinson’s decision.
On Monday, Stefanski said he remains comfortable with Watson as the Browns’ franchise quarterback despite Robinson’s findings.
“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.”
Information from ESPN’s Adam Schefter was used in this report.
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