Watson Calls an Audible on Suit Plans; Settles 20 of the 24
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
The Build-Up to Now:
A lot has gone on with the Deshaun Watson story in the past month. After being traded to the Cleveland Browns and given a lucrative contract guaranteeing $230 million over 5 years plus a $44 million signing bonus, Deshaun Watson addressed his game plan for the lawsuits against him. When asked if Watson would settle the lawsuits he stated
"That's not my intent, my intent is to continue to clear my name as much as possible, and that's what I'm focused on."
Fast forward to June 21, 2022, and 20 of the 24 suits have been settled. Settling the lawsuits Is not an indication of Watson admitting guilt, it is likely that the process of going to trial for 24 suits would be too time-consuming and too costly for both parties. The actual figures and reasoning of why these 20 plaintiffs settled are confidential and according to Tony Buzbee, there won't be any further comment on the matter. The interesting thing is that the original suit including Ashley Solis is still on track to go to trial after March 1, 2023. Buzbee and Hardin agreed not to go to trial between August 1, 2022, and March 1, 2023, presumably so Watson can potentially play the NFL season if he avoids a season-long suspension (which is a big if).
It was reported last week that Deshaun Watson and his team are bracing for a "significant suspension" for breaching the NFL's personal conduct policy (significant is likely to mean the entire season). The policy relating to Watson's case states
"Even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline. Prohibited conduct includes but is not limited to assault and/or battery, including sexual assault or other sex offenses."
Apparently, Watson had met with 66 different massage therapists over the course of 17 months and used Non-Disclosure Agreements to keep it "professional." The plot thickened even further when Buzbee named the Houston Texans as defendants in the case after it was alleged that the team set up a place at a hotel in Houston for these massage therapy sessions and that the NDA used by Watson was given to him by a Texans employee.
Watson's lawyer, Rusty Hardin, drew the public's ire after he went on SportsRadio 610 in Houston and stated "I don’t know how many men are out there now that have had a massage that perhaps occasionally there was a happy ending, alright? Maybe there’s nobody in your listening audience that never happened to. I do want to point out, if it has happened, it’s not a crime, OK? Unless you are paying somebody extra or so to give you some type of sexual activity, it’s not a crime.” While technically "correct", Hardin does not win many bonus points in the PR department.
So where are we?
A grand jury in Harris County and another grand jury in Brazoria County decided that they would not bring forward any criminal charges against Watson for the alleged behavior. Watson has settled 20 suits and has 4 more still on pace to go to trial after March 1, 2023, including the original plaintiff Ashley Solis. The NFL has finished its investigation and now faces significantly more pressure as the Texans were named defendants. The problem now escalates from an individual player's behavior to an organizational level of misconduct. The NFL must decide a proper punishment for Watson in the form of a suspension, fine, or both, as well as if there will be any action taken against the Texans organization as a whole for their role in this case.
Watson will likely be suspended for at least 6 games, probably the entire 2022-2023 NFL season. As for the Texans, if they are found to have facilitated Watson's behavior they could face further disciplinary action by the league. The Cleveland Browns look like they'll have to wait a year to see Watson under center in the orange and brown, but considering they structured his contract to only pay him $4 million this year, it seems they expected this result.
I, as well as all NFL fans and all sports lawyers, will be intently watching this case unfold. Personally, I think a year suspension is far too little for the overall context surrounding Watson's case. However, the NFL has not been exactly harsh with punishment (See Donte Stallworth). Watson is a talented player and was one of the league's most exciting talents out of college, but I find it hard to believe anyone outside of Cleveland will be rooting for him. As for now, only time will tell the outcome of this whole situation and Watson's punishment, all we can do is wait.
Evan Mattel is a rising 2L at Hofstra Law and VP of Sports of the Hofstra Sports and Entertainment Law Society. He is also an editor for Conduct Detrimental. He can be found on Twitter at @Evan_Mattel21 and on LinkedIn.