CLEVELAND, Ohio — The NFL Players Association is bracing itself for “unprecedented’’ discipline of Deshaun Watson and is prepared to vigorously fight it, a source told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
In addition, Florio reported that the divide in the NFL office over the handling of Watson’s case is intensifying, with those that want him off the field until his 24 civil suits have been resolved gaining momentum in the wake of more filings by the plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee and more allegations.
Buzbee told cleveland.com that he plans to file two more suits “in due course” and also plans to add the Houston Texans to the suits for allegedly aiding and abetting Watson’s alleged sexual misconduct during appointments with massage therapists.
As for the NFLPA’s strategy once the discipline is handed down, it plans to argue that any suspension for Watson without pay would be excessive in the wake of light treatment of three NFL owners who were recently involved in off-the-field transgressions: Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
A league source confirmed for cleveland.com that the argument against the owners is, indeed, the union’s planned defense.
As Florio pointed out, the union believes the pertinent line in the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy that should work in Watson’s favor is “Ownership and club or league management have traditionally been held to a higher standard and will be subject to more significant discipline when violations of the Personal Conduct Policy occur.”
“As to Snyder, the union will argue that his punishment in light of the findings and potential recommendations of attorney Beth Wilkinson was weak and not fully enforced,’’ Florio wrote. “As to Kraft, the union will argue that Kraft received no punishment despite allegedly receiving a massage became a sexual encounter. (Although Kraft was charged with solicitation, the case was dismissed based on the fact that the video surveillance utilized by law enforcement violated the rights of the various persons who were secretly recorded.) As to Jones, the union will argue that the league failed to investigate the voyeurism scandal involving former Cowboys PR chief Rich Dalrymple, including but not limited to the key questions of what Jones knew, when he knew it, and whether he knew that Dalrymple was secretly recording multiple cheerleaders while they changed their clothes.’’
Under terms of the new Personal Conduct Policy adopted in 2020, the union is confident that the ownership defense will carry more weight than under the old rules. In the past, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell determined the initial discipline and heard the appeals.
Now, discipline is assessed by an independent officer jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA. In the case of Watson, it’s former U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson. As long as Robinson fines or suspends Watson, Goodell or a designee can amend on appeal as they see fit.
Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has told cleveland.com that he anticipates the suspension being too harsh and that he’ll likely appeal.
According to the policy, the “discipline may be a fine, a suspension for a fixed or an indefinite period of time, a combination of the two, or banishment from the league with an opportunity to reapply. Discipline may also include a probationary period and conditions that must be met for reinstatement and to remain eligible to participate in the league.
“Players with a prior history of misconduct, including misconduct occurring prior to their association with the NFL, will be subject to enhanced and/or expedited discipline, including banishment from the league with an opportunity to reapply. In determining discipline, both aggravating and mitigating factors may be considered.
“Reference also may be made to requirements to seek ongoing counseling, treatment, or therapy where appropriate as well as the imposition of enhanced supervision, which upon satisfactory compliance would serve to mitigate the discipline otherwise imposed.’’
With the NFL nearing the end of its investigation, the Browns expect to hear something by the end of this month or in early July. Hardin told cleveland.com that NFL investigators have completed their interviews with Watson despite two new cases being filed since they talked to him for four days on two occasions, and “a few more’’ more accusers speaking publicly for the first time in a New York Times investigative piece by Jenny Vrentas.
At the NFL annual meeting in March, Goodell took the Commissioner’s Exempt List — paid leave — off the table because Watson hasn’t been indicted by a grand jury on criminal charges. It’s unknown if Goodell still feels that way.
But if the league needs more time or discovery, it could suspend Watson indefinitely and require him to meet certain conditions to get back on the field. It could also impose a probationary period.
During a podium interview after Tuesday’s minicamp practice, Watson repeated that he’s done nothing wrong in these sessions and still wants to clear his name.
“I’ve never assaulted anyone, or I never harassed anyone, or I never disrespected anyone, never forced anyone to do anything,’’ he said.
The Browns wrapped up minicamp on Thursday, and Watson isn’t due back on the field until the first training camp practice July 27. If he’s suspended, he can practice with the team until camp is over.
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