By TOM WITHERS
BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will serve an 11-game unpaid suspension, pay a $5 million fine and undergo professional evaluation and treatment as part of a settlement with the NFL following accusations of sexual misconduct by two dozen women.
The league had sought to ban Watson for at least one year for violating its personal conduct policy. He was accused of sexually harassing and coercing the women during massage therapy sessions while he was with the Houston Texans.
Watson signed a $230 million fully guaranteed contract after being traded to the Browns in March. Because the team structured Watson’s deal so he’ll make $1.035 million in his first season, he’ll lose $632,500 in salary during the suspension.
As part of the settlement, Watson can return for the Browns’ game in Houston on Dec. 4.
“My whole life I just have to be able to move forward and that’s the plan,” Watson said shortly after the settlement became public. “I have to be able to move forward with my career, move forward with my family, my personal life and everything.”
The settlement ends months of speculation and headed off a ruling from former New Jersey attorney general Peter C. Harvey, who was appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell after the league appealed a six-game suspension issued by disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson.
As part of the settlement between the league and the NFL Players Association, Watson will have to be evaluated by behavioral experts and follow their treatment program.
Watson apologized last week before the Browns’ preseason opener for the first time since the allegations surfaced. He tried to offer more contrition Thursday while maintaining he never has been inappropriate with women.
“I’ve always stood on my innocence and always said that I’ve never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone and I’m continuing to stand on that,” he said. “But at the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career.
“I’m going to continue to stand on my innocence and keep pushing forward, and I’ve always stood on not disrespecting or sexually assaulting anyone.”
Along with his $5 million fine, the league and Browns are donating $1 million each to a fund that will support nonprofit organizations across the country to educate young people on “healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes.”
Watson can practice until the suspension begins on Aug. 30, but coach Kevin Stefanski said he will not play in any preseason games. He won’t be allowed to return to the team’s facility until Nov. 28.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents all 24 women who sued Watson, was critical of the NFL’s handling of the case and settlement.
“By settling this matter the way he has, Roger Goodell has proven one of two things: Either his recent rhetoric was utter baloney, or his bark is much worse than his bite,” Buzbee said in a statement. “My belief is that he is nothing more than a paper tiger.
“The message today to all victims is clear, if you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away. The NFL has certainly demonstrated that its ownership and the organization doesn’t care.”
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who have been widely criticized for trading for Watson, stood by the QB. They said they expect him to learn and grow from the experience.
“Since Deshaun came into our building in April, he has done everything we have asked of him and more,” Jimmy Haslam said at a news briefing with his wife and Browns general manager Andrew Berry. “And he has been the person, the leader that we expect him to be and I think he understands where he is in his life, it’s a pivotal point, and we as an organization are going to do everything we can to help him not only be the best football player he can be but more important to be the best person he can be.”
Haslam was asked if he’s still comfortable with Watson being on Cleveland’s roster.
“Absolutely,” he said. “100%”
Dee Haslam was pressed on whether she believes Watson is innocent.
“We respect his opinion. I do think in counseling, Deshaun will grow to learn a lot more about himself,” she said.
On Aug. 1, Watson was suspended six games by Robinson, a former federal judge jointly appointed by the league and union to act as an independent disciplinary officer. As part of her ruling, she called his behavior “egregious” and “predatory.”
Watson wouldn’t comment directly on Robinson’s assertions.
“I know who I am,” he said. “I know what type of person I am. I know the character of the person I was raised to be and I have always been. That is the biggest thing for me is continue to show who Deshaun Watson really is, and the people that meet me and that are around me, they will figure out who I really am.”
Believing the suspension was too light, the league appealed and pushed Watson’s case back to Goodell, who had handled all player discipline in the past. The league previously pushed for an indefinite suspension and hefty fine.
At the owners’ meetings this month, Goodell said the league’s pursuit of a yearlong ban was warranted following its investigation and Robinson’s findings.
“She reinforced the evidence,” Goodell said. “There were multiple violations that were egregious, and it was predatory behavior.”
In her conclusion, Robinson cited Watson’s lack of remorse as a factor in her decision.
Watson was asked what was he apologizing for if he’s innocent. “For everyone that was affected by this situation,” he said. “There were a lot of people that were triggered.”
Watson was accused of being sexually inappropriate with the women from March 2020 to March 2021. In the civil lawsuits filed in Texas, the women accused him of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Two separate grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson, who also settled 23 of the 24 lawsuits.
For now, the suspension ends months of speculation about whether Watson would play in 2022 for the Browns, who outbid several other teams and traded three first-round draft picks to the Texans.
The Browns believe Watson could make them a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they could struggle to simply contend in the AFC North against defending conference champion Cincinnati along with Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
All along, the Browns’ plan was to turn their offense over to veteran Jacoby Brissett, who has made 37 career starts. But it’s now possible Cleveland will explore other options at quarterback.
The suspension also means Watson will be idle longer. One of pro football’s elite QBs, he sat out last season in Houston after demanding a trade and before the sexual allegations surfaced.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this report.
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