Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended six games for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson ruled on Monday.
There will be no additional fine accompanying the suspension, NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported.
In her 16-page report, which NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport obtained on Monday, Robinson wrote that the NFL successfully "carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson violated the (personal-conduct) policy" by engaging in "sexual assault; conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL."
While Robinson, a former U.S. district judge, noted that the NFL recommended Watson be suspended for at least the 2022 season, she said that she was "bound 'by standards of fairness and consistency of treatment among players similarly situated' " in her decision.
"Although I have found Mr. Watson to have violated the Policy, I have done so using the NFL's post-hoc definitions of the prohibited conduct at issue," Robinson wrote. "Defining prohibited conduct plays a critical role in the rule of law, enabling people to predict the consequences of their behavior. It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact. As I've noted above, the NFL is a private organization and can operate as it deems fit, but the post-hoc determination of what constitutes the prohibited conduct here cannot genuinely satisfy the 'fairness' prong of the standard of review or justify the imposition of the unprecedented sanction requested by the NFL."
Robinson wrote in her conclusion that in determining a six-game suspension for Watson, she looked "at the record when compared to the relevant precedent" and looked "forward to how this disciplinary determination might be used in the future."
Robinson's decision also requires Watson not have massages other than ones directed by club personnel. Watson also may "have no adverse involvement with law enforcement, and must not commit any additional violations of the policy."
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement Monday that they respect Robinson's decision.
"Throughout this process, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the newly created and agreed upon process for the NFLPA and the NFL to defer to the objective Judge Sue L. Robinson to comprehensively review all information and make a fair decision," the Haslams said. "We respect Judge Robinson's decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process. We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him."
The NFL released the following statement Monday on Robinson's ruling:
"We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer, for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL personal-conduct policy by Deshaun Watson," the league said. "We appreciate Judge Robinson's diligence and professionalism throughout this process.
"Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson's imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps."
The NFL Players Association issued a statement on Sunday stating that it would not appeal Robinson's ruling.
Any potential appeal to Robinson's ruling would be handled by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or by his designee, per the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. The ensuing ruling would then be final.
"The reason it's set up this way with the appeals officer, the disciplinary officer, making the initial decision and then Roger Goodell or his designee handle any appeal, is because the NFL Players Association wanted to avoid situations where the NFL suspended players based on a lack of evidence," Pelissero explained Monday on NFL Network. "In this case, had Sue L. Robinson ruled that the NFL did not prove any violation, then the NFL could not have appealed that. There would be no suspension; the process would be over. In this case, she did find that there was sufficient evidence to justify a six-game suspension."
Pelissero added: "If Goodell or his designee ends up increasing this discipline, I would certainly expect the NFLPA to examine all options, including suing in federal court."
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski addressed Watson's suspension during a Monday afternoon news conference. He was asked if Robinson's ruling gave him any pause regarding his comfort-level in having Watson as his quarterback.
"I haven't been able to read the entire ruling," Stefanski said. "I think all along, we've been very consistent like you mentioned. That comes from a lot of work on Deshaun the person throughout this entire process. So, I'm going to remain -- what we've said all along about Deshaun the person -- I would mention Deshaun has said it. He is working to be the best version of himself. He's committed to that. He has said it publicly. He's said that privately. And I believe that."
Watson's suspension follows his three-day hearing in Delaware earlier this summer before Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA. The disciplinary hearing concluded on June 30.
It was announced on June 21 that Watson had reached confidential settlements with 20 of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits alleging he committed sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. On Monday, attorney Tony Buzbee announced three of the four remaining civil cases against Watson had been resolved.
The initial lawsuits against Watson were filed in March 2021, and the league investigation into the allegations against him commenced that same month. Watson's former team, the Houston Texans, reached confidential settlements on July 15 with 30 women who made or intended to make claims against the organization for allegedly enabling Watson's behavior during massage therapy sessions.
Watson, 26, has previously denied any wrongdoing and maintained any sex with the women was consensual. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints filed by 10 women.
"No, like I said, I never assaulted anyone," Watson said on June 14. "I never harassed anyone. I never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything."
Watson, who has not played since the 2020 season, was traded from the Texans to the Browns in March, and the Browns signed Watson to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. Watson had requested a trade out of Houston in January of 2021, before the allegations of sexual misconduct against him first surfaced.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has been with the Browns throughout their offseason workout program and training camp. Free-agent acquisition Jacoby Brissett is set to start at quarterback for Cleveland during Watson's suspension. The Browns signed former first-round pick Josh Rosen in July to add to their QB room.