Criminal Investigation in Watson Saga Embroils Texans and Sponsors

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Michael McCann
·5 min read
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In a significant development in the Deshaun Watson controversy, the Houston Police Department announced on Friday that a complainant filed a report, resulting in a criminal investigation of the 25-year-old Houston Texans quarterback.

Prior to Friday, Watson was the subject of 21 civil lawsuits in Harris County Court by massage therapists alleging sexual misconduct, but none of the accusers had gone to the police with allegations—which Watson has categorically denied. The police investigation raises the stakes in the case, not only for Watson, who could face formal charges and the prospect of incarceration, but also many other parties who could now face requests to cooperate or subpoenas. Watson and his accusers are at the top of the list. Below them are the Texans, the NFL and Watson’s sponsors.

The development complicates an already multifaceted controversy. While the narratives and accusations in the civil suits vary, they mostly describe a similar pattern. Watson, they say, directed them to make unwanted sexual contact in the course of treating his groin area. They have sued the NFL’s 2020 passing leader for sexual assault, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. All of the plaintiffs are represented by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee. None of their names are known, as they filed anonymously.

Through his own statements and those of his attorney, Rusty Hardin, Watson has dismissed the allegations as unlawful attempts to extort. Hardin on Thursday released a statement from 18 named massage therapists. These therapists are all women. They say they worked with Watson and insist he never acted inappropriately. In remarks responding to the criminal complaint, Hardin maintains Watson’s legal team “welcomes” the development, since “now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser.” Hardin went on to express that Watson will “fully cooperate” with the police investigation.

The HPD announcement omits any details about the accuser, the accuser’s allegation or the severity of criminal charges Watson could potentially face. Like other states, Texas’s penal code contains a wide range of charges related to nonconsensual sexual acts. They include felony level offenses, most notably sexual assault, as well as misdemeanors for indecent exposure, harassment and offensive sexual contact.

The accuser’s filing won’t result in a formal charge against Watson unless there is probable cause, meaning a finding that a crime probably occurred and that the defendant is probably responsible. In assessing potential charges, law enforcement and prosecutors typically weigh the likelihood of securing a conviction—which requires a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Texas uses grand juries for felony cases, where ordinarily 12 grand jurors review evidence and testimony and at least nine of them must “vote to true bill,” also known as indict.

A sworn statement, made under the penalty of perjury, by any of Winston’s accusers would be influential evidence. Corroborating materials could include Instagram messages, texts, emails, as well as electronic mapping and location data in Watson’s wireless communications. Conversely, to the extent Watson possesses evidence or witness testimony that discredits an accusation, the lower the chance he’d face charges.

The criminal report is also noteworthy since the police now know the identity of at least one of Watson’s accusers. Law enforcement will interview witnesses and seek subpoenas to compel the disclosure of relevant evidence.

To that end, the HPD investigation is poised to involve Watson’s teammates, coaches and other co-workers. The lawsuits contend that other players contacted the therapists, allegedly at the behest or recommendation of Watson, potentially turning teammates into witnesses.

Law enforcement will also want to better understand why Watson would hire so many different therapists—nearly 40 so far between those who have accused him and those who have defended him. The Texans training staff might offer insight as to whether Watson had legitimate reasons for hiring numerous people to perform the same basic service.

The Texans also have a stake as Watson’s employer. Last fall Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension that runs to 2025. While Watson’s contract isn’t accessible, former New England Patriots general counsel Jack Mula recently told Sportico, “It is usual for a club to insert financial forfeiture provisions in a player’s contract.” To the extent Watson’s availability to play is impacted by legal proceedings, such provisions would become important.

The NFL, meanwhile, can conduct its own investigation while relying on materials produced through the legal process. As a private business, the league faces limitations in probing players’ off-field activities. It can’t obtain a subpoena for electronic records or compel witness testimony, yet with an accompanying criminal investigation and with numerous lawsuits that could lead to pretrial discovery, NFL investigators might obtain authoritative and reliable information.

Watson’s sponsors, which include Nike and Rolex, will also be watching. They signed Watson because of his spectacular football talent and sterling reputation. That calculus has changed. Endorsement deals normally include “morals clauses,” which allow the sponsor to suspend or terminate the deal if the player brings controversy on himself or herself. Even if Watson is ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, the journey to that point could render him unusable for advertisements.

The legal processes for both the criminal and civil matters facing Watson could take years to play out. The timing won’t be dictated by football or endorsement implications. The pursuit of justice will be the guiding force.

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