The long-awaited verdict on Deshaun Watson’s suspension came in Monday. Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson ruled that the NFL should suspend Watson for six games after he violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
The NFL had initially pushed for a year-long suspension for Watson, who was accused of sexual assault and misconduct in 24 civil lawsuits. Meanwhile, Watson’s representation argued that he shouldn’t be suspended at all since he was not charged criminally in any of those cases.
Robinson ended up meeting the two sides somewhere in the middle, but the six-game ruling certainly seems like a favorable one for Watson and the Browns.
How did Robinson reach her verdict? She explained the ruling in a 16-page memo that was released on Monday. The memo can be found here in its entirety.
Deshaun Watson suspension details
Robinson’s explanation for her ruling was simple. Essentially, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to the personal conduct policy, which outlines a baseline six-game suspension for players that violate it, and she didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to extend beyond that six-game mark.
“Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct,” Robinson wrote. “At least in the former situation, the Policy was changed and applied proactively.
“Here, the NFL is attempting to impose a more dramatic shift in its culture without the benefit of fair notice to — and consistency of consequence for — those in the NFL subject to the Policy. “
The NFL’s personal conduct policy was designed to be malleable; it outlines the six-game suspension to be the baseline but can be increased by “aggravating factors” which included, but are not limited to, a prior violation of the Personal Conduct Policy, violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when an act is committed against a particularly vulnerable person, such as a child, a pregnant woman, or an elderly person, or where the act is committed in the presence of a child,” per the policy.
Even though Watson met the criteria for some aggravating factors in Robinson’s opinion, she still believes that the NFL was trying to overreach in its punishment of Watson. Robinson noted the “non-violent sexual conduct allegations” against the Browns quarterback weren’t enough to warrant a long suspension based on previous precedents.
“It is undisputed that Mr. Watson’s conduct does not fall into the category of violent conduct that would require the minimum 6-game suspension. It likewise is undisputed that prior cases involving non-violent sexual assault have resulted in discipline far less severe than what the NFL proposes here, with the most severe penalty being a 3-game suspension for a player who had been previously warned about his conduct.”
However, that didn’t stop Robinson from condemning Watson’s behavior. She said that his “pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL” and that the league proved Watson posed “genuine danger” to the massage therapists in question.
But once again, Robinson deferred to the NFL’s policy, rules and precedents in her decision.
“As I stated earlier, it is the NFL’s policy and it can set the rules,” Robinson wrote. “I accept the fact that a work environment with sexualized conduct is not a safe environment, and I accept as credible the testimony of these therapists that they felt unsafe and suffered emotional distress as a result of their massage sessions with Mr. Watson.
“Based on the NFL’s broad interpretation of this prohibited conduct as reflected in the evidence it chose to present, I find that the NFL has carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson’s conduct posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.”
The NFL has three days to decide whether to appeal Robinson’s decision. In a statement, the league announced that it will “make a determination on the next steps” in the coming days.
Regardless of what the league chooses to do, Robinson essentially advised the league to review its personal conduct policy in her memo. She believes that needs to be done out of the courtroom if the league wants to be able to impose stricter punishment on its players.
“While it may be entirely appropriate to more severely discipline players for non-violent 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.”