The NFL said Wednesday it is appealing a decision by a former federal judge to sit Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson without pay for just six games. The league is pushing for a full-season suspension instead.
On Monday, Watson was suspended for six games this season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy in private meetings with massage therapists while he was with the Houston Texans.
The NFL had asked Sue L. Robinson, the former judge hired by the NFL and its players union to decide on Watson’s punishment, for a suspension covering the 17-game regular season and the playoffs.
No player accused of non-violent sexual misconduct, as Watson has been, has received a suspension longer than six games, Robinson said in her 16-page ruling issued Monday.
“While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for nonviolent sexual conduct, I do not believe it is appropriate to do so without notice of the extraordinary change this position portends for the NFL and its players,” she wrote.
“The NFL notified the NFLPA that it will appeal Judge Robinson’s disciplinary decision and filed its brief this afternoon,” league officials said Wednesday. “Commissioner Roger Goodell will determine who will hear the appeal.”
On Thursday, the league announced Goodell had selected former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey to hear the appeal, noting Harvey has arbitrated other cases and has advised the league on the “development and implementation of workplace policies, including the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.” Harvey is also a consulting expert with the NFL’s Diversity Advisory Committee, which helps improve racial and gender diversity throughout the league.
Watson has repeatedly denied the accusations.
“I’ve never assaulted, I never disrespected, and I never harassed any woman in my life,” Watson has said. “I don’t have any regrets.”
The NFL Player’s Association has already said it would not appeal. The union declined to comment Wednesday. The Browns also declined to comment.
The attorney of Watson’s accusers said the NFL “does not care about the rights of women” following the Cleveland Browns quarterback’s suspension for sexual misconduct allegations.
Appearing Tuesday on ESPN’s “First Take,” attorney Tony Buzbee attacked the investigation, saying he hopes the NFL will appeal the case, but his clients are angered and disappointed by the lenient suspension handed down by a disciplinary officer.
“Don’t expect the NFL to do anything heroic here,” Buzbee said.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to charge Watson with any crimes.
Twenty-four civil lawsuits have been filed against Watson – 23 have been settled confidentially.
Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin told CNN he will not comment until after the NFL decides whether to appeal.
Judge Robinson said she was suspending the 26-year-old for his “predatory conduct.”
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson wrote in the 16-page ruling.
But, despite those findings, Judge Robinson critiqued the NFL for asking for an unprecedented full-season suspension which would be far lengthier than other players accused of non-violent sexual conduct.
On Tuesday, Buzbee – the attorney for the plaintiffs in the case against Watson – told ESPN he hopes the NFL moves forward with an appeal because that gesture would be well received by the accusers.
“I think that would change the messaging and I think it would be well received by the women I represent,” he said.
In her findings, Robinson wrote that her decision is limited by the record that was presented to her by NFL investigators who are former prosecutors with decades of experience investigating sexual assault cases. She noted that Watson had “allegedly worked with more than 60 massage therapists” during the period under consideration, and that the NFL had “only investigated the claims of the 24 therapists suing Mr. Watson for damages.”
And of the 24, Robinson wrote that the NFL was only able to interview 12 alleged victims. They relied on the testimony of four of those 12 in the case presented to her for review.
Buzbee attacked the way in which the investigation was conducted.
“None of my clients testified in front of the federal judge. I think that’s a common misconception that four people testified. That’s not the case. Not one of them showed up. Not one of them was asked to show up and testify,” he said. “Since those interviews, we have had no contact whatsoever with the NFL.
“They care about the bottom line. They care about making money,” said Buzbee on ESPN.
“They’re trying to manage this as a PR crisis, but as far as trying to do anything to assuage these particular women or women’s rights – or dealing with women’s rights in general – that’s not part of their mission statement and they’ve made that very clear throughout this process.”
On Tuesday, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center said it was “disappointed” by the ruling to suspend Watson for only six games.
“The 6-game suspension given dangerously mirrors the flaws in our criminal justice systems and sends a grave message to our communities,” the organization said in a statement to CNN on Tuesday. “Far too often those in positions of power and celebrity who commit violence against others are not held accountable for their actions.
“These ongoing headlines are triggering for so many. To survivors, we say we see you and we believe you. Your story matters. Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is available 24/7/365 online or by calling/texting (216) 619-6192.”
The ruling comes after a number of women who worked as massage therapists filed lawsuits against Watson alleging sexual assault or misconduct during massage sessions. Last month, 30 women who have made or intended to make claims against the Texans organization over Watson’s alleged misconduct settled their claims, according to a statement from Buzbee and the Texans’ ownership.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler, did not play last season while a member of the Houston Texans because of a trade demand as well as the investigations into these allegations.
Days later, the Browns traded three first-round picks for Watson and then signed him to a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract, the most guaranteed money in NFL history.
Watson will not be paid during his suspension, but the Browns structured his new contract so his base salary is $690,000 his first year and then $46 million for each of the next four years, according to the salary tracking website Spotrac.
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.