Will the star quarterback be disciplined by the NFL? Faced with civil or criminal charges? Be paid $10 million to sit out during all 17 games of the regular season? Be traded to another team? Deshaun Watson, the Houston Texans star quarterback, has officially been ruled out for Week 1. The Texans ruled out Watson with a “Not Injury Related” designation on Friday and Tyrod Taylor (the former Buffalo Bill) will be the Texans’ starting quarterback.
On September 5, 2020 , Watson signed a 4 year $160 million extension, of which $111 million is guaranteed. This deal was scheduled to keep the star quarterback in Houston until 2025. In the 2020 season, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien was fired. During the off season, the Texans hired David Culley. Shortly thereafter, on January 28, 2021, Watson requested a trade from the Texans. As a result of a no-trade clause in his contract, Watson is allowed to choose his next team. Currently, the rumors have it that the Dolphins are most interested in Watson.
Then in March and April of 2021, Deshaun Watson, a 25 year old who played at Clemson in college, was accused by 22 different women of coercive and lewd sexual behavior, and two women accused Watson of sexual assault. Watson has not been criminally charged. The charges Watson currently faces are civil charges. One case has been dropped. The lawsuits were filed in Harris County, Texas. Attorney Tony Buzbee is representing all 22 women.
All of the allegations filed against Watson are extremely similar. Watson had hired the women to provide massages or personal services and during the services he would expose himself to the women and he would force the women to touch him in a sexual manner. All of the incidents are alleged to have occurred between March 2020 and March 2021.
In March 2021, Watson responded to the charges on social media, stating that he had “never treated any women with anything other than the utmost respect”. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lawyer, stated that the claims against his client were meritless. Hardin also described one of the allegations of sexual assault as a blackmail attempt. Hardin then introduced first hand testimony of 18 massage therapist who had treated Watson over the past 5 years and said they had not experienced any of the alleged behavior.
On April 2, 2021, the Houston Police Department announced that it had begun an investigation into Watson’s behavior after a complaint was filed. Also during April 2021, two women, Ashley Solis and Lauren Baxley, publicly identified themselves and described the alleged behavior of Watson. On April 8th, Watson’s lawyers made a motion to compel the plaintiffs to reveal their identities. This motion was granted and 21 women added their names to the suits. The total number of active civil suits against Watson at the moment is 22. However, then on April 9, Hardin announced that Watson admits to taking part in consensual sexual acts with some of the female complainants. Then on April 13, Buzbee stated that the victims did not consent to sexual acts with Mr. Watson.
In August of 2021, Buzbee told the Associated Press that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) had reached out to him and that he was working with the agency. Hardin then responded that Watson had spoken with the FBI in response to allegations of extortion by one of his accusers.
Will the NFL discipline Watson for a violation of the League’s Personal Conduct Policy? On March 18, the NFL opened an investigation into the allegations against Watson. According to an interview with Lisa Friel in July 2021, “The biggest change doing investigations in the private sector is that you no longer have the ability to subpoena. When you are on the public side, you get all the evidence because you have subpoena power. You also have a different burden of proof,”(https://ublawsportsforum.com/2021/07/21/lisa-friel-making-a-positive-difference-in-the-nfl/) So, for any league completing an investigation into player behavior, it will be more difficult to gather evidence and to speak with victims and witnesses because as private businesses they do not have subpoena power to compel individuals to turn over evidence or speak.
What’s next for Deshaun Watson will depend on what happens in the NFL investigation, the different court cases, and what Roger Goodell decides to do with him. There have been rumors that Watson should be placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. This has been done previously in similar situations pending the results of an investigation, such as with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. Players on the Commissioner’s Exempt List continue to be paid while not eligible to play. Meanwhile, we will all just have to wait and see…..