What to know about Deshaun Watson controversy as NFL preseason kicks off : NPR

Deshaun Watson at Cleveland Browns training camp in July.

Nick Cammett/Getty Images

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Nick Cammett/Getty Images

What to know about Deshaun Watson controversy as NFL preseason kicks off : NPR

Deshaun Watson at Cleveland Browns training camp in July.

Nick Cammett/Getty Images

The NFL is back this month – and with it, the possibility of one of the game’s most controversial players returning to the field.

In the year and a half since star quarterback Deshaun Watson last played in an NFL game, dozens of women have come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.

It is generally expected to be suspended as a result. This month, a referee recommended a six-game ban — a sentence many criticized for being too short. After intense backlash, the NFL appealed the decision, seeking a suspension of one year or more.

Now, as the league and Watson await the outcome of the appeal, which could come at any time, Watson is set to play for the first time since the 2020 season when his new team, the Cleveland Browns, take the field. in Friday’s pre-season game. .

What’s wrong with Deshaun Watson?

Here’s the summary: Watson was an exciting young quarterback drafted in the first round in 2017 by the Houston Texans. As a Texans starter, he helped lead the team to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019. His own performance peaked in 2020 with 33 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a league-high 4,823. passing yards (although his team fell just 4-12 this season).

Then, in March 2021, a woman filed a lawsuit accusing Watson of sexually harassing her during a massage therapy session. Twenty-two other women filed lawsuits in the spring, all accusing him of similar misconduct. (A lawsuit was dropped after a judge asked the women to release their names.) Two other lawsuits were filed this summer.

Watson has denied all allegations.

The Texans opted to bench him for the 2021 season. This year, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns even as the NFL’s own investigation was ongoing. The 2022 pre-season begins this week; the regular season begins in September.

What exactly is Watson accused of?

The lawsuits filed against Watson describe strikingly similar behavior. Watson would hire a massage therapist for a massage session. The massages took place in a variety of locations, including spas, hotel rooms, and Watson’s home and office.

At some point during the massage, according to the lawsuits, Watson would become sexual: asking women to have sex, pointing their hands at his groin, touching them with his penis. Two women say he orally penetrated them without their consent. Others say he ejaculated on it.

The number of massage therapists seen by Watson is much higher than the number represented by the lawsuits. The New York Times reported this summer that Watson saw at least 66 massage therapists over a 17-month period from late 2019 to early 2021.

In addition to the 24 women who have filed lawsuits, at least two have filed criminal complaints. Other women hired by Watson during this period reported no issues during their sessions, and more than a dozen others filed statements of support for Watson.

“I’ve never assaulted anyone,” Watson said in June. “I never harassed anyone or disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything.”

Where are the lawsuits? Have there been any criminal charges?

There is no ongoing criminal investigation against him. In March, a grand jury in Harris County, where Houston is located, declined to bring charges in nine criminal cases; a second grand jury in neighboring Brazoria County also declined charges in a tenth case.

In June, Watson agreed to settle 20 of the 24 lawsuits against him. One of the lawsuits also named the Texans as a defendant for enabling Watson’s behavior, including providing him with nondisclosure agreements for massage therapists to sign; the team reached a settlement in July that covered 30 women in total. This month, three of the remaining lawsuits were settled.

That leaves an ongoing lawsuit. A trial is currently expected in the spring of 2023.

What’s the story with the Browns signing him?

After the first grand jury declined to indict Watson, the Browns signed the quarterback to a lucrative five-year, $230 million deal, structuring his contract to minimize the loss of salary if suspended this season (which is almost certain).

The Browns have been without a stable franchise quarterback for decades. Their newest prospect, Baker Mayfield, helped the Browns return to the playoffs after a 17-year drought. But he had struggled with a shoulder injury and a seemingly poor relationship with team officials, and the Browns traded him to the Carolina Panthers in July.

Watson’s acquisition was already controversial when the team signed him in March. (More than 2,000 people donated to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center to charitablely protest the signing.)

And the controversy hasn’t stopped in the months since: an HBO special that aired in May helped motivate two more accusers to sue, and the Time The investigation revealed that Watson’s attorney had been in regular contact with Harris County prosecutors in the months leading up to the grand juries.

Will he play this season? And in the future?

It is not yet known whether he will play in the regular season, which begins in September. Some suspension is almost certain.

The league and the players’ union had agreed to use a referee to decide on a penalty. This month, that umpire, a former federal judge, recommended a six-game suspension.

The NFL appealed that decision in an effort to suspend him longer. League commissioner Roger Goodell said the evidence called for a suspension of at least a year, calling Watson’s conduct “predatory” and “flagrant”.

It’s unclear when that appeal will be decided. The NFL Players Association said it would sue if it felt the suspension was too long, so it’s possible it will only be settled in federal court.

In the meantime, without an active suspension, Watson is cleared to play. The Browns’ first preseason game is Friday night, and the team says it expects Watson to start at quarterback.


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