Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments, was suspended Monday for six games for violating the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy and was not fined.
The N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association did not immediately return calls for comment.
The ruling was made by Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the N.F.L. and the players union to oversee player discipline. The league and the players union have three business days to submit a written appeal, which would be handled by Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing. The players union said in a statement on Sunday night — before Robinson informed both sides of her decision — that it would not appeal and called on the N.F.L. to let the ruling stand.
By the time Watson is eligible to return from suspension it will have been about 22 months since he last played in an N.F.L. game.
The ruling comes after a 15-month investigation into allegations that Watson, then quarterback of the Houston Texans, had engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior toward women he hired for massages from the fall of 2019 through March 2021. Watson denied the claims and grand juries in two Texas counties declined to charge Watson criminally.
Watson has reached settlements with all but one of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty suits were settled in June, and shortly before Robinson issued her ruling, Watson reached agreements with three more women, including Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first claim against Watson in March 2021, a lawyer for the women confirmed.
Among the conduct prohibited by the league’s personal conduct policy are sex offenses, actions that endanger the safety and well-being of another person and anything that undermines the league’s integrity. The policy purports to hold the people who represent the league to a “higher standard,” regardless of how cases are adjudicated elsewhere.
The Browns made a significant investment in Watson, trading top draft picks to acquire his services and then signing him a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract to be their franchise quarterback. An elite talent, Watson requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season when Houston struggled to a 4-12 record.
He was traded to the Browns in March, after a first Texas grand jury declined to charge him criminally, for three first-round picks and three additional selections in the N.F.L. draft. A second grand jury also opted not to bring charges against Watson.
The league and Watson’s representatives could not negotiate a mutually agreed upon discipline, putting the initial decision in Robinson’s hands. She oversaw a three-day hearing in late June, during which the N.F.L. recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and required to wait at least a full season to reapply, while the union and Watson’s representatives argued against a lengthy ban.
This was the N.F.L.’s first personal conduct case to be heard by a disciplinary officer instead of Goodell, a protocol established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. In advance of Robinson’s decision, the union called the new process impartial and legitimate while imploring the N.F.L. not to ask Goodell or his designee to override her ruling on an appeal.
The decision on Watson’s discipline was widely anticipated, not only as a result of the Browns’ investment in him, but because the breadth of allegations against Watson set this apart from any other personal conduct case that has been considered by the league. The decision comes as scrutiny of the N.F.L.’s treatment of women has included a congressional inquiry into the workplace treatment of female employees at the Washington Commanders and a warning from attorneys general in six states, including New York, that they will investigate the league unless it addresses allegations of workplace harassment of women and minorities.
The N.F.L. began its investigation of Watson in March 2021, when the first accusers’ lawsuits were filed. The league’s investigators, who do not have subpoena power, met with 10 of the women who filed lawsuits against Watson, contemporaneous witnesses to verify their accounts and other women who have worked with Watson.
The Browns anticipated Watson to be suspended for at least part of the 2022 season and structured his contract accordingly, loading most of his $46 million compensation for this year into a signing bonus. He will lose only a portion of his approximately $1 million base salary.
Watson can continue working out with the Browns during training camp. Pending any potential appeals, his suspension will begin with the Browns first regular season game on Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ seventh game, against the Baltimore Ravens, on Oct. 23.