CLEVELAND, Ohio – Deshaun Watson’s disciplinary hearing in front of Sue L. Robinson adjourned on Tuesday evening, but will resume Wednesday and could last at least another day or two, a source told cleveland.com.
The hearing in Delaware began Tuesday morning at about 9 am and concluded at about 5:30 pm Watson was represented by his personal attorney Rusty Hardin and the NFL Players Association’s big gun, Jeffrey Kessler.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday evening that barring an unlikely settlement, both the NFL and NFLPA will file briefs in the several days following the end of the hearing, and that it could ultimately take weeks for a final decision.
After a 15-month NFL investigation into accusations by nearly 30 massage therapists of sexual misconduct by Watson during appointments, the league has recommended Watson, 26, be suspended indefinitely without pay for at least a year. He would be the first Browns player to be suspended indefinitely since Myles Garrett missed the final six games of 2019 for removing Mason Rudolph’s helmet and striking him in the head with it during a game. Garrett was reinstated in February of 2020 and played the 2020 season.
The NFL, which interviewed about 11 of Watson’s accusers, based its case on five women whom they believe presented the most compelling evidence of wrongdoing, including text messages that it believes corroborated their allegations. Twenty-four of the accusers filed civil suits, 20 of which Watson settled on Tuesday.
The NFLPA is arguing that Watson shouldn’t be suspended at all or minimally based on the lack of evidence and the fact that all 24 plaintiffs were represented by the same attorney in Tony Buzbee. The NFLPA also cited a lack of equally harsh punishments for three NFL owners directly or indirectly involved in alleged sexual misconduct: Dallas’ Jerry Jones, New England’s Bob Kraft and Washington’s Daniel Snyder.
If Robinson, jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA, abides by the league’s recommendation of the indefinite suspension of at least a year, the NFLPA and Watson’s side will appeal, a source said. They have three days to file the appeal in writing to Commissioner Roger Goodell, and any response must be filed in writing within two business days thereafter. Goodell’s word or that of his designee will be final.
The two sides can also reach agreement on discipline at any point during the hearing, but that is not expected. Either side can appeal Robinson’s ruling, and all parties hope for a resolution before the start of training camp July 27.
If the NFL gets the full year it wants, backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett will presumably replace Watson. The Browns also still have Baker Mayfield on their roster, but are trying to trade him before the start of camp. Josh Dobbs is the third-teamer behind Watson and Brissett.
Mayfield, asked at his youth football camp in Oklahoma Tuesday morning if he might replace Watson in the event he’s banned for a year, indicated it’s unlikely.
“I think it’s been pretty obvious the mutual decision on both sides is to move on,” he said. “No, I think for that to happen, there would have to be some reaching out, but we’re ready to move on, I think, on both sides.”
He said he was’ thankful for my four years in Cleveland. There’s a lot of ups and downs and a ton of learning experience that I’ll forever keep with me. Teammates and friends and relationships that I’ll have for a lifetime. … just relationships like that, you’re so thankful for, so the support staff in Cleveland, the people in Cleveland, it’s a great sports town, so I’m thankful for it. There’s no resentment towards the city of Cleveland by any means. ”
Mayfield, who still has a realistic chance of being traded to the Carolina Panthers, admitted he was dismayed a trade didn’t happen a few weeks ago.
“I think I got frustrated with it not happening before like minicamp (June 14-16) and all of those things, ” he said. “But that’s the stuff that’s out of my control, so [I’ll] let those things happen and fall into place. ”
When the Browns traded for Watson on March 18, sending six draft picks to the Texans including three first-rounders, they likely expected he’d miss about 6-8 games and still have a chance to lead a Super Bowl-caliber roster to the playoffs.
With the first of two grand juries having declined to indict Watson on criminal charges at that point, they likely believed he wouldn’t be suspended for the year. They continued to build the roster and load up on talent, resigning Jadeveon Clowney, extending the contracts of David Njoku and Denzel Ward and others.
It will be a tremendous blow to the Browns from a football standpoint, but the NFL is determined to come down hard on Watson for what it believes is a disturbing pattern of behavior. Any suspension for Watson will also include the continuation of counseling, which he admitted June 14 at minicamp he’s been undergoing. There will be other terms and conditions he’ll have to meet before being allowed to apply for reinstatement after the season.
Depending on the details of a potential year-long ban, Watson’s contract could roll over to next season, and the Browns could still have him for the full five years of his fully-guaranteed, NFL-record $ 230 million deal. If he’s ultimately suspended for a finite number of games, he’ll lose only $ 57,500 per game based on the Browns lowering his 2022 base salary to $ 1,035 million in a cap-saving move, similar to what they’ve done with Amari Cooper and Denzel Ward.
The NFL is likely seeking the indefinite ban, in part, because more lawsuits could be filed. The open-ended nature of the suspension would provide the opportunity to consider new information as it arises, and for Watson to demonstrate no such accusations will occur in the future.
Despite the addition of two more civil suits since May 31, an HBO interview with two of the accusers and The New York Times article quoting new accusers who haven’t yet filed suits, the Browns remain all in on Watson and have no plans to try to void his contract.
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