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Deshaun Watson's attorney acknowledged in a news conference Friday that the Houston Texans quarterback did engage in sexual activity during massage sessions, but he said the encounters were consensual.
The attorney, Rusty Hardin, indicated there were "sometimes consensual encounters" during Watson's massage sessions. When later asked by a reporter to clarify, Hardin said "we've never run from it" and the question "has always been about consent."
"I'm not going into what it is, the nature, the numbers or with whom," Hardin said. "The question always, that we have always been emphasizing: Never, at any time, under any circumstances ... did this young man ever engage in anything that was not mutually desired by the other party."
Watson, 25, has been accused of sexual misconduct or assault in lawsuits filed by 22 women over the past four weeks. The women, who filed their complaints using the pseudonym "Jane Doe," have generally alleged that he exposed himself or touched them with his genitals during massage sessions. Two women have also accused him of sexual assault.
Houston police are investigating at least one complaint involving Watson, and the NFL is also investigating the matter under the auspices of its personal conduct policy. Hardin said he has not heard from either entity as of Friday, and does not know how many women have filed criminal complaints involving his client.
Watson, who led the NFL in passing yards last season, has broadly denied wrongdoing in his only public statement on the matter.
Hardin, meanwhile, reiterated Friday that "we do not believe the allegations" and defended both Watson's character and some of his actions related to the massages.
Flanked by four female attorneys, Hardin said Watson has received about two or three massages per week over the past four years, or as many as 150 massages per year. He said strict COVID-19 protocols were partly, but not exclusively, why Watson contacted massage therapists on Instagram over the past calendar year.
"You have to remember the landscape and all the availability of these things changed in 2020," Hardin said. "... Sure, it's a lot. And the reason is because he got a lot of massages."
Among the other topics of discussion at the news conference:
► When asked why Watson sought massages from so many different massage therapists, especially during a global pandemic in which such sessions could risk possible exposure to COVID-19, Hardin cited the quarterback's ever-changing schedule, among other reasons.
"His schedule is longer than everybody else's, and it's more unpredictable," Hardin said. "He may not know until 11 o'clock at night what time he's got available tomorrow."
► Hardin described the filing of anonymous lawsuits against Watson as "a new model for extortion."
"You bleed it out, you keep saying it, you keep saying it, you keep talking about (it)," he said.
► When asked about Watson's alleged desire to be nude during the massages, Hardin said he believes that nudity isn't rare in such settings. He added that he would be surprised "if masseuses really were shocked or surprised or uncomfortable with a man wanting to be nude." (Several women have claimed in lawsuits that Watson's nudity was either surprising or made them uncomfortable.)
► Hardin did not directly address a question about alleged Instagram exchanges in which Watson asked women to dress a certain way for a massage session. The messages have been referenced by Tony Buzbee, the attorney who is representing the 22 civil plaintiffs.
"I'm really not going to get into what Tony has said, because that's a long, long trip down the line," Hardin said. "We'll be glad to answer all of those questions. There will be depositions, there will be everything else."
Hardin and his team also spent a significant chunk of the news conference discussing Watson's character.
Attorney Letitia Quinones, who said she is a survivor of sexual assault, spoke about Watson's upbringing and characterized him as someone who is still reconciling with his fame and public persona.
"This 25-year-old young man was thrown into the depths of something he wasn't accustomed to: Money, fame and stardom," Quinones said.
Watson starred collegiately at Clemson, has been selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls and signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension last fall.
Another attorney on Hardin's team, Rachel Lewis, said she did not know who Watson was prior to taking on his case. She is not originally from Houston, she said, and she does not watch football. But after spending several hours with Watson, Lewis said: "I can tell you that this man is not capable of the things that are in the allegations."
"I would ask everyone to not rush to judgment," Lewis later added. "... He is a good man. He does not deserve this. And I know that everyone will see that."
Hardin's news conference came hours after two emergency motions hearings at which he asked the court to compel 13 of the unnamed women to refile their lawsuits with their names attached. The judge in each hearing granted Hardin's request.
Buzbee said in one of the hearings that nine of his clients had already agreed to come forward, in addition to Ashley Solis and Lauren Baxley, who revealed their identities at a news conference earlier this week.
"After they watched Ashley Solis provide her compelling and truthful statement, these brave women felt emboldened and strong enough to take this important step," Buzbee said in a statement Friday afternoon. "They are ready to be identified."
Hardin is required to file formal responses to some of the lawsuits as early as Monday under Texas law. He suggested that he and Watson are "absolutely" prepared to fight the lawsuits in trial.
"What he wants more than anything is to get back his reputation," Hardin said.
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deshaun Watson update: Attorney acknowledges QB engaged in sex acts