Commentary: Fumble from the handoff: Deshaun Watson’s suspension in new system is shockingly light

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson drops back to pass during an NFL football practice.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson practices at training camp on Friday.
(David Dermer / Associated Press)
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Note to readers: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault allegations.

How much more did the disciplinary officer need to hear?

Sue L. Robinson, a former U.S. district judge, believed the NFL’s case against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. She cited Watson’s lack of remorse. She called his pattern of conduct “more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” and acknowledged those massage therapists were psychologically damaged by the star quarterback.

And the proposed penalty Robinson delivered Monday morning?

A six-game suspension.


So Watson gets the equivalent of a high-ankle sprain, will be on the field before midseason, losing less than $400,000 in salary — the kind of money you’d find in the couch cushions of a player with a guaranteed deal of $230 million.

The NFL wanted a ruling it wouldn’t have to appeal. It wanted this new system to work, with a disciplinary officer hearing these cases and issuing rulings that both the league and NFL Players Assn. could stomach. But this was a fumble on the opening handoff.

A disciplinary officer has issued Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson a six-game suspension, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gets to hear appeals.

Aug. 1, 2022

More than two dozen women have filed civil suits accusing Watson of sexual misconduct as he cycled through massage therapists — allegedly working with 60 in a 15-month period — and acted in an undeniably creepy way.

Watson’s alleged pattern: He’d reach out to therapists on Instagram, identify himself as an NFL quarterback and say he urgently wanted to schedule a massage for that day. He didn’t want a professional setting and instead wanted something private. He wasn’t concerned whether the women were experienced therapists or even licensed.

According to his accusers, he’d follow up with text messages to make sure the therapists were comfortable massaging certain parts of his body, especially his lower back, glutes, abs and groin area. He would ask for the women to use a towel to cover him, instead of the customary sheet, and often would provide his own towel — little more than a washcloth.

In the stomach-turning words of Robinson: “When he turned over on his back, it is alleged that Mr. Watson exposed his erect penis and purposefully contacted the therapists’ hands and arms multiple times with his erect penis. One of the therapists alleges that Mr. Watson not only contacted her arm multiple times, but that he ejaculated on her arm.”


Robinson notes: “There is no allegation that Mr. Watson exerted any force against any of the therapists.” However, what is alleged is plenty damning.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson warms up before training camp on Thursday.
(Nick Cammett / Associated Press)

Consider some of the suspensions in recent years. Atlanta receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for at least a year after he bet on NFL games while he was away from the team during the 2021 season. Tight end Darren Waller, then with Baltimore, was suspended for a year after multiple violations of the substance abuse policy. Same for former Denver running back Travis Henry and then-Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon.

By contrast, barring a likely NFL appeal, Watson will have fresh legs in time to make a midseason run.

Watson was never charged and has denied any wrongdoing. While that’s important to note, the point of Monday’s development is that Robinson sided with the league.

She writes 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.” So the discipline was issued with that in mind.


In her decision, Robinson cites what she calls mitigating factors. She refers to Watson as a first-offender — most of those don’t have 25 separate lawsuits filed against them — and writes that he “had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events.” Well, what does that mean? A lot of people have excellent reputations until people discover what they’ve been doing. That carries weight?

Rams say they will cut reps for Matthew Stafford (throwing arm pain) and receiver Van Jefferson needs a second surgery on his left knee and could miss opener.

Aug. 1, 2022

In revealing her discipline, Robinson writes the six games represent “the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct.” Strange stat. Let’s hope there’s not a large sample size.

And this might be the most bizarre part. Robinson writes that, going forward, it’s appropriate for Watson to limit his massage therapists to ones provided by the team instead of shopping around for them on his own.

It’s as if she’s saying she doesn’t trust that this won’t happen again.

Surely the NFL didn’t want to have to appeal this ruling and send it back to Commissioner Roger Goodell (or someone he appoints) to decide. But after these world-record leaps in logic, the league has to throw a challenge flag. Or be a spectator to a ruinous precedent.