Retired judge Sue L. Robinson handed down her decision Monday. In her briefing, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Robinson wrote that she determined Watson had "engaged in sexual assault (as defined by the NFL) against the four therapists identified in the Report."
Said the NFL in a statement: "We thank Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent disciplinary officer, for her review of the voluminous record and attention during a three-day hearing that resulted in her finding multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy by Deshaun Watson. We appreciate Judge Robinson's diligence and professionalism throughout the process."
The league said it was "reviewing" whether it would pursue an appeal of the decision as permitted by the collective bargaining agreement. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or an official of his choosing would handle the appeal if the league pursues that option. Thursday is the deadline for a decision.
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During disciplinary hearings at the end of June at an undisclosed location, the NFL, Watson and the NFL Players Association made their case to Robinson, a retired federal judge who now serves as the NFL’s disciplinary officer. According to terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Robinson reviewed the findings of the investigation that the NFL conducted for the better part of the last year and heard arguments from both sides before making her decision on Watson's punishment.
The NFL’s argument for an indefinite suspension was designed to allow for flexibility if additional cases surface.
In her conclusion, Robinson explained her decision not to impose a heftier suspension by saying the NFL was "attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice" to players.
Watson's case was unprecedented largely because of the number of accusers. Two Texas grand juries also opted not to indict him.
The last player to receive an indefinite suspension from the NFL was running back Ray Rice, who knocked out his wife on an Atlantic City elevator in February 2014. Rice initially received a two-game suspension, but after a public outcry, Goodell extended that punishment to an indefinite length. Rice appealed, and in November 2014 won his case and the freedom to return to the field. However, no team signed him.
Watson’s legal woes began in March 2021 after multiple women – whose services he had solicited through social media –accused him of sexual misconduct in early 2020 through early 2021.
The accusations surfaced shortly after Watson had expressed dissatisfaction with his original team, the Houston Texans, demanding a trade. Twenty-two women sued him in 2021, specifically March and April 2021, with the other two coming in May and June 2022. Watson has reached settlements with 23 of the 24 women who sued him.
While at odds with the Texans, Watson was a healthy scratch for all 17 games last season. Watson was traded after the first grand jury’s decision on nine complaints, but before the second grand jury made a decision on a 10th complaint in March 2022. The Browns forked over three first-round picks, two fourth-rounders, and a third-round pick to Houston (which dealt a sixth-rounder) and gave Watson a record-breaking five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.
Browns officials claimed they had done their homework on Watson’s situation and said they felt good about him as a person despite the accusations he faced.
Veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett, whom the Browns signed in March, is set to take over as the starter with Watson sidelined, coach Kevin Stefanski said last week at the start of training camp. Though he has primarily served as a backup throughout his six-year tenure, Brissett has compiled 37 starts, including nearly two seasons as the top signal-caller for the Indianapolis Colts in 2017 and 2019.
The Browns traded incumbent starter Baker Mayfield, who asked to be moved after the team began its pursuit of Watson, to the Carolina Panthers on July 6.
Contributing: Brent Schrotenboer
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deshaun Watson suspended six games for violating NFL conduct policy