The National Football League (NFL) and the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA) reached a settlement Thursday in the case of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, handing down the league’s highest ever punishment for sexual misconduct. Watson, who was accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women, has been given an 11-game suspension without pay and a $5 million fine for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Watson faced dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct during massage sessions. A 15-month investigation by the NFL into the 25 women who had come forward resulted in an initial six-game suspension and no fines by the league’s new third-party appointed adjudicator; this ruling was then appealed by the NFL, which sought a tougher penalty. No timeline was ever given on when the third-party adjudicator who heard the appeal would issue his decision.
There are 17 games played over an 18-week season in the NFL. Watson’s suspension begins August 30. The quarterback’s base salary for 2022 is only a little over $1 million. Next year, his contract with the Browns — a five-year, $230 million deal — will jump to $46 million a year.
A six-game suspension is the baseline disciplinary action for sexual misconduct by players who faced accusations ranging from sexual harassment to sexual violence. It emerged as the default punishment in 2014 after public outcry over the league’s two-week suspension of running back Ray Rice over domestic violence charges. (As video circulated of the assault, the league handed down an indefinite suspension. Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens, and though he was eventually reinstated into the league, he was never signed by another team.)
But very few players have been suspended for six weeks or more. The New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for six additional games in 2017 following an initial one-game suspension relating to domestic violence in 2016. Also in 2017, running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys was suspended for six games after facing domestic violence allegations from an ex-girlfriend. Elliott appealed, and the NFLPA filed a suit against the NFL, saying that the league’s disciplinary process was unfair. The suspension was paused and reinstated several times, ultimately taking effect after Elliott dropped his appeal about halfway through the season. In 2020, wide receiver Antonio Brown was suspended for eight games while a free agent, on the grounds of several accusations: A woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct said he sent her threatening texts, and he also pleaded no contest to battery and burglary charges after a dispute with a moving company employee.
The longest suspensions in the NFL’s history have come as a result of failing drug tests for both recreational and performance-enhancing drugs; players have faced penalties of season-long or multi-season suspensions as a result of this kind of misconduct.
The initial ruling against Watson by the NFL was met with widespread public outcry. It was also the first under the NFL’s new system for investigating and issuing disciplinary actions for sexual misconduct created by the NFLPA’s collective bargaining agreement. Outside of the NFL investigation, 23 of the women who have brought forth allegations against Watson and filed suits against Watson in civil court have since settled with Watson out of court. One civil case still remains open.
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