NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson has ordered Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson to be suspended without pay for six games, the league confirmed to NPR on Monday.
The punishment comes after 24 women accused Watson of sexual misconduct, sparking civil lawsuits and sidelining the star quarterback in 2021. Watson settled 20 of the cases against him in June.
The six-game suspension is “the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct,” Robinson said in his decision, adding that “Mr. Watson’s behavior is more egregious than any other previously reviewed by the NFL.”
Robinson found Watson responsible for “multiple violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told NPR via email.
Specifically, she said the NFL had proven Watson engaged in: sexual assault (as defined by NFL policies); conduct that poses a danger to another person; and conduct that undermines the integrity of the NFL.
The accusations against Watson came from some of the more than 60 massage therapists he worked with over a 15-month period from late 2019 to winter 2021.
Robinson said that in making appointments with massage therapists, Watson “had a sexual purpose – not just a therapeutic purpose.”
“I find the evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Watson knew, or should have known, that any contact between his penis and these therapists was undesirable,” Robinson said.
Earlier this year, two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, paving the way for his eventual return to the playing field.
Watson has the right to appeal the decision within three days, through the NFL Players Association. The league can also file its own appeal.
The NFL says it is “reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a decision on next steps.”
Robinson is a former federal judge who began working with the NFL after retiring from the U.S. District Court bench for the District of Delaware.
Describing the factors she considered in deciding Watson’s sentence, Robinson acknowledged that he had “an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events”, adding that he had cooperated with the investigation and paid the restitution.
But, she said, Watson – who adamantly denied doing anything improper during the massage sessions – also showed no remorse. She also noted that he did not immediately notify the NFL when the first lawsuit was filed in March 2021.
As for the NFL star’s intentions before and during the massage sessions, Robinson wrote, “Mr. Watson showed a reckless disregard for the consequences of his conduct, which I find amounts to intentional conduct. “
Watson was playing for the Houston Texans when the allegations against him arose. In March, he signed a five-year contract to become the Browns’ quarterback.