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 after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage sessions, a league source told ESPN.
Watson will also pay a fine of $5 million that will go to charity, the source said.
The deal has not been signed but is agreed upon, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
“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 will be available to play for the Browns again in Week 13, when Cleveland faces his old team, the Houston Texans, on the road.
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.
Robinson, an independent arbiter jointly appointed by the league and players’ union, originally ruled on 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.
“As we have previously conveyed, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the NFL and NFLPA structure awaiting a final decision and we have respected the process,” Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, 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. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community.”
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 its alleged “enabling” of Watson’s behavior.
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” on Aug. 12, before starting Cleveland’s preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Watson has not spoken to reporters since the start of training camp.
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.
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 only going to lose $57,500 per game suspended, without the $5 million fine imposed in the settlement.
Browns coach Kevin 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’s “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 with a record of 14-23.
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