NFL appeals six-game ban for Deshaun Watson, quarterback accused of sexual assault

The NFL has appealed the six-game suspension that a neutral arbitrator gave Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, aiming for a longer ban.

Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during a training camp. Picture: Nick Cammett/Getty Images/AFP
Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns throws a pass during a training camp. Picture: Nick Cammett/Getty Images/AFP

The NFL appealed the six-game suspension that a neutral arbitrator issued to Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, the NFL said, a decision likely to ignite a battle with the players union — and pave the way toward a longer ban for the embattled superstar.

Watson’s case stemmed from dozens of women who accused him of sexual assault or misconduct during massage therapy sessions since last year, and it was heard by former U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson, who was appointed mutually by the NFL and NFL Players Association. The league argued that Watson should have been suspended indefinitely, and for no less than a year, based on its assessment of how his behaviour violated the league’s personal conduct policy.

But the process negotiated in the latest round of collective bargaining included a fail-safe for the NFL to tilt the scales: either side could appeal the length of a suspension determined by the neutral arbitrator. And that appeal heads to commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he chooses.

The NFL, in its appeal brief, asked for the same punishment it originally sought: a suspension that would last for at least all of the 2022 season, a person familiar with the matter said.

Deshaun Watson rests after running a drill during a Cleveland Browns training camp. Picture: Nick Cammett/Getty Images/AFP
Deshaun Watson rests after running a drill during a Cleveland Browns training camp. Picture: Nick Cammett/Getty Images/AFP

Now the stage is set for yet another contentious battle over player discipline in the NFL, this time involving one of the game’s highest-profile players — with a clear path for the league to lengthen Watson’s suspension, even if it generates acrimony from the union.

The union now has the opportunity to respond to the NFL’s appeal. An NFLPA spokesman did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

“The NFL notified the NFLPA that it will appeal Judge Robinson’s disciplinary decision and filed its brief this afternoon,” the league said in a statement. “Commissioner Roger Goodell will determine who will hear the appeal.”

The NFL’s decision to exercise this right signals the league’s clear desire to keep Watson off the field for longer based on its investigation into his alleged misconduct. The league’s arguments focused on a handful of the cases against Watson, which the NFL thought had the strongest contemporaneous evidence. Watson has denied wrongdoing.

But even before Robinson issued its ruling, the NFLPA had launched an offensive on the league’s right to appeal. On Sunday night, the evening before her decision was announced, the union issued a statement saying it would abide by it, while calling on the league to do the same. There was little upside for Watson’s camp in an appeal, however, as the process would send the case to the league office.

Then, on Monday, the NFL said it was determining next steps after Robinson’s punishment of Watson fell far short of the league’s recommendation.

Deshaun Watson runs a drill during a Cleveland Browns training camp. His move to the Browns has been overshadowed by mass allegations of sexual assault. Picture: Nick Cammett/Getty Images/AFP
Deshaun Watson runs a drill during a Cleveland Browns training camp. His move to the Browns has been overshadowed by mass allegations of sexual assault. Picture: Nick Cammett/Getty Images/AFP

Robinson’s ruling put America’s most popular sports league in a fraught position.

The six-game suspension of Watson swiftly generated backlash from activists and women’s groups who derided it as yet another case where a player got off without significant discipline for accusations of wrongdoing against women. Had the NFL and Goodell not moved forward with an appeal, those calls would have been amplified in an area that has been thorny for the league over the years — especially after the NFL’s own investigators had argued he should be kept out of the game for longer.

Yet the NFL’s choice to appeal was also problematic. It required overruling Robinson, a former federal judge who reviewed the case for weeks. It also will inevitably spark a new fight with the players union and Watson’s lawyers, one that could even lead to a legal battle in the courts.

The NFLPA’s defence of Watson has already skewered the league on sensitive subjects. The union cited team owners who have been accused of misconduct and not punished at all.

Robinson’s ruling walked a tightrope that sided with — and against — both parties. She agreed that Watson had violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy with behaviour she called “egregious.” She also needled the NFL for pushing for a discipline she said would be out of line with precedent.

In her 16-page decision, Robinson wrote that Watson’s behaviour was “predatory.” She found in favour of the league’s contention that he had violated the rules in various ways, while adding that the six-game suspension would be the longest in NFL history for what she dubbed “non-violent sexual conduct.”

“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” she wrote.

Deshaun Watson during his time with the Houston Texans. Picture: Mark Brown/Getty Images
Deshaun Watson during his time with the Houston Texans. Picture: Mark Brown/Getty Images

She also wrote, however, that the league’s effort to ban him for even longer would be out of line with past precedents. While the NFL had argued that such a ban was warranted because his behaviour was unprecedented, she chastised the league for her perception that it was seeking a harsher discipline in reaction to public sentiment.

That may also underpin the NFL’s basis for an appeal. The judge backed the conclusions of the NFL’s investigation about Watson’s behaviour. She just disagreed with the magnitude of the punishment.

Depending on if the suspension is extended and for how long, the decision to go this route could presage an even more extended battle. The NFL prevailed in 2017 when the NFLPA and Ezekiel Elliott went to court over the running back’s six-game suspension, but he received a temporary restraining order that allowed him to play for much of the season and previewed the type of all-out blitz that can come inside the courtroom.

For both sides, the outcome of these proceedings has outsize importance and not simply because this is perhaps the most scrutinised disciplinary matter in NFL history. This is also the first personal conduct hearing under the new collective bargaining agreement — meaning it could set precedents for future cases, too.

– The Wall Street Journal