Eleven Game Suspension for Sexual Misconduct: A Blitz on Deshaun Watson, or Justice Served?
By: Victoria Thompson* Posted: 10/31/2022
In March of 2022, the Cleveland Browns acquired twenty-six-year-old quarterback Deshaun Watson in a trade with the Houston Texans for the 2022 first-round picks. Deshaun Watson signed one of the best deals in NFL history with the Browns. It included a five-year contract for a guaranteed $230,000,000, with an added signing bonus of $44,965,000. With this contract, his average annual salary is $46,000,000. In August of 2022, Watson forfeited $5,632,500 of this contract under the penalty of “conduct detrimental to the league” when his name joined the ranks of those professional football players accused of sexual assault.
Since March of 2021, twenty-four women have come forward to file civil suits against Watson for alleged sexual harassment or assault during private massage sessions during his time with the Houston Texans. Of those suits, Watson settled twenty-three confidentially. Additionally, Watson’s case was brought before two grand juries in Texas, both of which declined to indict him. Without a criminal indictment, the punishment was left to the discretion of the NFL and its Personal Conduct Policy. Watson continuously denied the inappropriate conduct until August of 2022, when in an interview, he stated, “I want to say that I’m truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation. My decisions that I made in my life that have put me in this position I would definitely like to have back….” It is unclear whether or not this was an admission of guilt on Watson’s behalf.
Per the NFL guidelines in subsequent sections, former federal judge Sue L. Robinson decided to suspend Watson for six games without pay after a disciplinary hearing. However, in what some would consider a shocking turn of events, the NFL pushed back and lobbied for an entire season suspension instead. Ultimately, Watson received an eleven-game suspension and a $5,000,000 fine. This is the most severe punishment the NFL has ever doled out for sexual misconduct to date. The NFL has dished out heftier sanctions for gambling and drug use than sexual misconduct allegations. Sexual assault in professional football has been famously known to garner even less attention than the debate on concussions and has been officially reported even less than players who have been found driving under the influence.
2014 Updates to the NFL Conduct Policy
It was not until 2014 that the NFL truly made strides in its policy on sexual assault. Towards the end of 2014, the NFL required all members, and even some family members, to participate in education centered on domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. For participants unable to make the live training sessions, the NFL had an online version available to the public. By mid-year 2015, education sessions had become an integral part of Training Camp for the players and other football personnel.
Beyond training, the NFL took the initiative of revisiting the Personal Conduct Policy concerning player conduct and discipline. There were six main revisions or additions made to the policy, including: “additional NFL-funded counseling and services for victims, families, and violators, a more extensive list of prohibited conduct, independent investigative procedures, specific criteria for paid leave for an individual formally charged with a crime of violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, an expert group of outside advisors to review and evaluate potential violations and consult on other elements of the policy, and a baseline suspension of six games without pay for violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse, other forms of family violence, or sexual assault, with consideration given to possible mitigating or aggravating circumstances.” The final addition was the basis for Judge Robinson’s initial six-game suspension of Watson.
In addition to policy updates, NFL Commissioner Goodell appointed a Conduct Committee for the league comprised of representatives from various NFL ownership. These representatives are tasked with an annual review of the policy and must recommend any changes they deem appropriate. Despite the headway made in 2014, the issue of sexual assault in the NFL again fell somewhat dormant until 2018, when there were allegations of sexual assault made on behalf of female employees against the Washington Commanders football team.
The Personal Conduct Policy was updated once again in 2018 and contained language that prohibits NFL employees from engaging in “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL. Punishment under this policy does not have to follow a criminal conviction or question by law enforcement officials. If an employee of the NFL is suspected of violating this policy, it is then the job of an appointed disciplinary officer to gather evidence for a hearing to determine the appropriate course of action. Per a 2020 agreement between the NFL and the players union, the NFL has ten days before the hearing to recommend a specific punishment to the disciplinary officer. However, “[t]he league is responsible for establishing a burden of proof that the player violated the personal conduct policy, as well as publishing any mitigating factors, such as the player accepting responsibility, receiving clinical help and paying fines.” Once a decision by the disciplinary officer has been made, it is final unless the league appeals. In the case of Watson, the disciplinary officer offered a six-game suspension, it was the appeal by Goodell and the NFL which increased his suspension to eleven games. While the appeal from the NFL, and increased suspension of Watson, was a step in the right direction, sexual abuse remains an issue in the world of Professional Sports.
*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2024, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
 See Jake Trotter & Sarah Barshop, Deshaun Watson Traded to Cleveland Browns; QB Set to Sign Deal Worth $230M Guaranteed, Sources Say, ESPN (Mar. 18, 2022), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/33538489/deshaun-watson-willing-waive-no-trade-clause-cleveland-browns-sources-say (detailing trades made for 2022 NFL season).
 See Leah Asmelash, The Deshaun Watson Settlement Shows the NFL Has Made Progress with Sexual Misconduct Accusations. Will Anything Change?, CNN (Aug. 28, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/27/sport/deshaun-watson-nfl-violence-sexual-misconduct-cec (claiming that deal with Cleveland Browns was “rich”).
 Deshaun Watson, Spotrac, https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/cleveland-browns/deshaun-watson-21753/ (last visited Sept. 29, 2022) (outlining specific numerical values of Watson’s contract with Cleveland Browns).
 See id. (stating average annual salary of Deshaun Watson).
 See id. (noting official reason for Watson’s 11-game suspension and $5,000,000 fine).
 See Asmelash, supra note 2 (stating basis for civil suits against Watson); see also Aaron Reiss, Deshaun Watson Timeline: How Browns QB Ended Up with 11-Game Suspension, $5 million Fine, The Athletic (Aug. 18, 2022), https://theathletic.com/2496073/2022/08/18/deshaun-watson-sexual-assault/ (discussing timeline of allegations against Deshaun Watson).
 See id. (noting settlement of majority of civil suits against Watson).
 See id. (detailing lack of criminal indictment against Deshaun Watson).
 See Personal Conduct Policy, NFL, https://nflcommunications.com/Documents/2018%20Policies/2018%20Personal%20Conduct%20Policy.pdf (last visited Sept. 29, 2022) (referencing NFL Personal Conduct Policy last updated in 2018).
 See David Close & Ray Sanchez, Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson Suspended 11 Games, Fined $5 million After NFL and NFLPA Reach Settlement, CNN (Aug. 18, 2022), https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/18/sport/deshaun-watson-suspension-fine-spt-intl/index.html (quoting Deshaun Watson interview).
 See id. (stating that Deshaun Watson never confessed to sexual misconduct but alluded to it in interview).
 See id. (outlining initial punishment for Watson before NFL pushback).
 See id. (expressing NFL’s desire for harsher punishment).
 See id. (presenting final punishment for Deshaun Watson after NFL appeal).
 See Asmelash, supra note 2 (observing severity of Watson’s punishment in comparison to prior NFL sexual misconduct disciplinary measures).
 See id. (being mindful of prior disciplinary action by NFL for infractions related to gambling and drug use).
 See Timothy Bella, Timeline: The NFL’s History of Alleged Assault and Abuse Against Women, Aljazeera America (Feb. 18, 2022), http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/america-tonight-blog/2014/2/17/timeline-the-nflshistoryofallegedassaultandabuseagainstwomen.html (criticizing NFL for dedicating more attention to concussions and DUIs than to allegations of sexual misconduct).
 See The NFL’s Response to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, NFL (Dec. 05, 2014), https://www.nfl.com/news/the-nfl-s-response-to-domestic-violence-and-sexual-assault-0ap3000000439286 (acknowledging that issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse involving NFL players became media focus in 2014).
 See id. (stating new ongoing education requirements for NFL between October and December 2014).
 See id. (explaining protocol for NFL participants who could not attend live training sessions centered on domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault).
 See id. (noting addition of anti-abuse education sessions to Training Camp in July 2015).
 See id. (asserting that NFL revised Personal Conduct Policy in 2014).
 See id. (listing six major additions to NFL Personal Conduct Policy that came with 2014 revision).
 For further discussion of NFL suspension guidelines see supra note 12 and accompanying text.
 See The NFL’s response to domestic violence and sexual assault, supra note 18 (educating on appointment of Conduct Committee for NFL comprised of ownership representatives).
 See id. (detailing responsibilities and duties of NFL Conduct Committee).
 See V. James DeSimone, Sexual Harassment is Illegal, Even in the NFL, Bloomberg Law (July 15, 2022), https://www.bloomberglaw.com/bloomberglawnews/us-law-week/XABUJU0K000000?bna_news_filter=us-law-week#jcite (noting eight-month investigation into claims of sexual harassment by Washington Commanders was released).
 See Ayana Archie, Deshaun Watson is Suspended for 11 Games. How Does the NFL Make Those Decisions?, NPR (Aug. 19, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/08/19/1118350437/deshaun-watson-suspension-nfl (observing 2018 updates to NFL Personal Conduct Policy).
 See id. (stating that no criminal conviction is necessary for discipline under NFL Personal Conduct Policy).
 See id. (outlining discipline process for violation of NFL Personal Conduct Policy).
 See id. (explaining ability of NFL to recommend disciplinary action to investigator prior to disciplinary hearing on violation of NFL Personal Conduct Policy).
 See id. (rendering NFL responsible for establishing that player violated NFL Personal Conduct Policy).
 See id. (noting finality of disciplinary decision for violation of NFL Personal Conduct Policy).
 For further discussion of NFL suspension guidelines see supra notes 12-13 and accompanying text.
 See generally, Asmelash supra note 2 (outlining history of sexual violence in football and NFL).