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Why Deshaun Watson discipline did not require legal charges

Watson found out the severity of his punishment on Monday, when he was suspended six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Credit: AP Photo/David Dermer
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson looks to pass during an NFL football practice in Berea, Ohio, Friday, July 29, 2022.

HOUSTON — When two separate Houston-area grand juries declined to indict Deshaun Watson on criminal complaints stemming from allegations of sexual assault or harassment by 24 women, it didn’t clear the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback from facing consequences from the NFL.

Watson and the Cleveland Browns found out the severity of his punishment on Monday, when he was suspended six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy, two people familiar with the decision told The Associated Press.

Disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson made the decision after the NFL pushed for an indefinite suspension of at least one year and Watson’s legal team argued for no suspension during a three-day hearing that concluded June 30.

A player does not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to be disciplined for conduct detrimental to the league, per the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association. Ezekiel Elliott, Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston and Kareem Hunt are among the many players who have received suspensions despite not being charged criminally.

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Some legal experts are critical of the process.

“Normally arbitration is reserved for civil matters in workplaces, which is what makes the NFL’s investigation of criminal allegations wholly unique and, in my opinion, potentially unfair,” said attorney Amy Dash, founder of League of Justice, a website that reports on sports and the law. “The determinations create a presumption of guilt by many people in the public forum. But so far courts have not wanted to disturb the outcomes because the whole process was negotiated and agreed upon in the CBA by the players’ union reps and the league.”

Dash also noted that sometimes players are being investigated for criminal allegations in the arbitration process and they “don’t have the same protections a defendant in the criminal courts would have such as presumption of innocence, a burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the same rules of evidence and discovery, etc.”

But the league negotiated its disciplinary process with the union so it has the power, as an employer, to impose punishment.

The major difference in Watson’s case was the discipline came from an independent arbiter. The league and union agreed in the 2020 CBA that a disciplinary officer would determine whether a player violated the personal conduct policy and whether to impose discipline. Previously, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had the authority to do it.

This was the first case for Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the league and the union.

However, Goodell still has the right to overturn her decision if either side appeals. Per the CBA, an appeal would be heard by Goodell or a person he designates and the written decision would be final.

After learning the ruling was imminent, the NFL Players Association issued a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying they would not appeal disciplinary Robinson’s ruling and urged the league to follow suit.

Goodell wasn’t directly involved in Robinson’s decision, but the league made it clear it wanted an unprecedented punishment. The NFL is well aware of public perception. Fallout from its decision in the Ray Rice case in 2014 — when the league increased its suspension only after video of the former Ravens running back hitting his fiancee emerged — led the NFL to vow it would levy harsher penalties in cases involving violence and sexual assault against women.

Watson settled 23 of the civil lawsuits from 24 women alleging sexual harassment and assault during private massage therapy sessions when he played for the Houston Texans.

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After one of the grand juries declined to indict Watson in March, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said: “We respect our justice process. I love the law. It’s designed to get to the truth. That’s really what people want. I don’t think as a culture we can live with injustice. Remember, a grand jury no bill is not an exoneration. People, even when they clear the criminal justice system, often face accountability and repercussions in other parts of our legal system. And so I think to determine whether justice was done in this case you’re going to have to wait and see how it all comes out on the civil side of things and then through the NFL on the administrative side of things. And then people will determine whether that’s justice.”

The administrative part has now been decided.

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