The NFL presented a 215-page report based on testimony from four of 12 women interviewed by league investigators, and 37 other third parties. Robinson determined, based on the league’s burden of proof, that Watson violated three provisions of the personal conduct policy: sexual assault; conduct posing a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL.
Robinson noted the league acknowledged at the hearing that its recommended punishment was “unprecedented” and she concluded the NFL should not change its standards of discipline for nonviolent sexual assault without giving fair notice to players.
“Defining prohibited conduct plays a critical role in the rule of law, enabling people to predict the consequences of their behaviour,” she wrote. “It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”
Robinson rejected Watson’s denials of wrongdoing and considered his “lack of expressed remorse” to be an aggravating factor.
“As to mitigating factors, he is a first offender and had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events. He co-operated in the investigation and has paid restitution, ”she wrote it.
Watson, who signed a fully guaranteed $230 million (A$330m), five-year contract, will lose only $345,000 if the suspension is unchanged because his base salary this season is $1,035 million. His $45 million signing bonus is not affected by the suspension.
In a statement, the league said it is “reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”
This was the first case for Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the NFL and the union to handle player misconduct — a role previously held by Goodell.
Watson can continue to train and play in exhibition games before his suspension begins the first week of the regular season. He can return to practice in week four and would be eligible to play on October 23 when the Browns play at Baltimore.
He waved toward cheering fans while he and his teammates began their stretching period before practice Monday in Ohio. “We got your back, Watson!” yelled one.
With an appeal still possible, Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam delayed commenting until training ended.
“We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process,” the Haslams said. “We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
After learning the ruling was imminent, the NFLPA issued a joint statement with Watson on Sunday night, saying they will not appeal and urged the league to follow suit. The union had argued Watson shouldn’t be punished at all because he was not convicted of a crime.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints brought by 10 of the women.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl pick with the Texans, has seen his playing career stalled by the allegations. He sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade before the allegations came out.
In their lawsuits, the women accused Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson has denied all wrongdoing, insisting any sexual activity with three of the women was consensual. He publicly insisted his goal of him was to clear his name of her before agreeing to confidential financial settlements with 20 of the women on June 21.
“This case started because one woman had the fortitude to step forward and make her voice heard,” said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil lawsuits. “Her courage from her inspired many others with the same experience. None of this saga would have occurred without that one brave voice. One person can make a difference.
Buzbee said that although some of his clients “have strong feelings” about the NFL’s proceedings, he noted that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process “are very different.”
On the suspension decision, Buzbee noted that his legal team was not involved in that process.
“We don’t know what was presented to Judge Robinson by the NFL’s lawyers. We don’t know how the NFL’s case was presented,” he said, adding that “only a small fraction of those women that we represent were ever spoken to by the NFL’s lawyers. Beyond that, we can’t speculate and have no comment on the decision.”
The league has been sensitive about its image and handing out the appropriate discipline for Watson after being criticized for its handling of previous cases of domestic violence or sexual misconduct against women involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Cleveland running back Kareem Hunt , among others.
The Browns were widely condemned for signing Watson. The team has been desperate to find a long-term answer at quarterback — they’ve had a league-high 32 starters since 1999 — and many questioned why the team would take on a player with so much baggage.
At his introductory news conference after being traded to Cleveland, Watson was adamant about his innocence.
On July 15, 30 women settled lawsuits against the Texans after claiming the team ignored and enabled Watson as he harassed and assaulted them during the therapy sessions. Terms of the settlements were confidential.
Despite Watson’s legal entanglement, the Browns and several other teams pursued him after the first grand jury declined to indict him.