The NFL and the NFL Players Association on Thursday reached a settlement in the Deshaun Watson disciplinary matter, agreeing that the Cleveland Browns quarterback will serve an 11-game suspension without pay after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
Watson will also pay a fine of $5 million and undergo mandatory evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their suggested treatment program.
Watson’s fine and contributions from both the NFL and Browns of $1 million each will create a fund to support nonprofit organizations in the United States “that educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes,” the NFL said in announcing the settlement.
Watson’s suspension takes effect Aug. 30, when NFL teams cut down to the roster limit of 53 players. He will be eligible for reinstatement Nov. 28 and will be available to play for the Browns again in Week 13, when Cleveland faces his old team, the Houston Texans, on the road.
Watson has to comply with evaluation and treatment recommendations of a third-party behavioral expert to be reinstated, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. If Watson doesn’t comply with the treatment plan, his reinstatement could be delayed and he could receive further discipline, the sources said.
“I’m grateful that the disciplinary process has ended and extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received throughout my short time with the Browns organization,” Watson said in a statement released by the Browns. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made. My focus going forward is on working to become the best version of myself on and off the field and supporting my teammates however possible while I’m away from the team. I’m excited about what the future holds for me in Cleveland.”
Watson later met with the media Thursday, however, and maintained his innocence.
“I’ll continue to stand on my innocence, just because you know settlements, and things like that happen doesn’t mean that a person is guilty for anything,” he said. “I feel like a person has an opportunity to stand on his innocence and prove that, and we proved that from a legal side, and just going to continue to push forward as an individual and as a person.”
Watson also said he wants to someday tell his side of the story.
“That’s definitely the plan, that’s definitely the goal,” he said. “I feel like through the whole process I’ve been trying to tell my side of the story. But a lot of people just didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.”
Watson was asked what he was apologizing for in his statement Thursday and in past comments.
“For everyone that was affected by this situation. There were a lot of people that were triggered,” he said.
He added that he has “apologized to all women, so anybody that was affected,” when asked to clarify whether his past apologies were specifically to the women who made allegations against him.
Browns co-owner Dee Haslam, when asked about Watson’s comments about his innocence, said Thursday: “We respect his opinion. I do think in counseling Deshaun will learn a lot more about himself.”
“Counseling takes time. You do not just go to a counseling session, wake up and understand the impact it has. I think it is a layering effect, and it takes weeks, months and a long time to get to where you understand so much more about yourself,” she said. “I think Deshaun has made progress from the time he came here to now. He is making progress, but it is not going to happen overnight. He is 26 years old, and he is just getting into counseling; it is going to take some time.”
Browns co-owner Jimmy Haslam said that he believes in second chances.
“I think in this country, and hopefully in the world, people deserve second chances. I really think that,” he said. “… Is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be a part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? That is what we are going to do. … We think people deserve a second chance. … That does not mean we do not have empathy for people affected and we will continue to do so, but we strongly believe, strongly believe that people deserve a second chance; we believe Deshaun Watson deserves a second chance.”
Watson, who started the Browns’ preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday, will not play again this preseason, coach Kevin Stefanski said Thursday.
The settlement between the two sides heads off a ruling from former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey, whom commissioner Roger Goodell appointed to oversee the NFL’s appeal of disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s decision that Watson be issued a six-game suspension.
“Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” Goodell said in a statement. “This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine, and a more substantial suspension. We are grateful to Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in addressing these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion.”
Robinson, an independent arbiter jointly appointed by the league and players’ union, originally ruled Aug. 1 that Watson would serve a six-game suspension but would not be fined for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, writing in a 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.”
Goodell, in explaining the league’s decision to appeal Robinson’s ruling, said that the evidence called for at least a full-year suspension.
In their statement released earlier Thursday, the Haslams said, “we understand this is a real opportunity to create meaningful change and we are committed to investing in programs in Northeast Ohio that will educate our youth regarding awareness, understanding, and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior.”
Watson has been accused of sexual assault and other inappropriate conduct during massage therapy sessions in lawsuits filed by 25 women. The actions alleged in the lawsuits took place from March 2020 to March 2021, while Watson was a member of the 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. Two other women filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him.
Watson has settled or agreed to settle all but one of the remaining lawsuits, which remains pending. In July, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who made claims or were prepared to make them against the NFL organization for what attorney Tony Buzbee called its alleged “enabling” of Watson’s behavior.
“The message today to all victims is clear: If you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away,” Buzbee, who represents the women who sued Watson, said in reaction to Thursday’s settlement. “The NFL has certainly demonstrated that its ownership and the organization doesn’t care. To all sexual assault survivors, do not allow this recent ‘punishment’ to deter you. Keep speaking up and keep speaking out. Your voice matters. You are making a difference. We stand with you.”
Although two grand juries in Texas declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson earlier this year, the NFL had 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.
In her report, which concluded Watson violated the personal conduct policy with “egregious” and “predatory” behavior, Robinson noted that an aggravating factor in her decision to suspend Watson for six games was his “lack of expressed remorse.”
After previously denying all wrongdoing and saying he had “no regrets” for any of his actions during the massage sessions, Watson publicly apologized to “all the women I have impacted” Friday before Cleveland’s preseason opener.
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.
Jimmy Haslam said Thursday the Browns would still make the trade despite Watson’s 11-game suspension.
“We would. We felt like we made an informed decision. Understand why others might not have made the same decision that we did, but we do believe that Deshaun has strong positive qualities and we do think that he has done everything in his power to integrate himself with our team and done everything we have asked,” he said. “We do believe that as he goes through the self-improvement and self-growth process that he has the opportunity to make a strong and positive contribution to our team and our organization.”
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.
Yet because Cleveland structured his contract to include a 2022 base salary of only $1.035 million, Watson was going to lose only $57,500 per game suspended, without the $5 million fine imposed in the settlement. Watson’s total lost pay this season will be $632,500.
Stefanski said at the start of training camp that Jacoby Brissett would become Cleveland’s starter in the event of a Watson suspension, and indicated recently that he has “been very impressed” with Brissett thus far.
“Very comfortable with him,” Stefanski said. “I think he has a very good understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”
Despite being a backup for much of his career, Brissett has 37 starts and a record of 14-23.
ESPN’s John Barr contributed to this report.