The NFL is back this month — and with it, the possibility that one of the game’s most controversial players will return 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.
He is widely expected to be suspended as a result. This month, an arbitrator recommended a suspension of six games — a punishment that many criticized for being too short. After intense backlash, the NFL appealed the decision, looking for a yearlong suspension or more.
Now, as the league and Watson await the outcome of the appeal, which could come at any time, Watson is poised to play for the first time since the 2020 season when his new team, the Cleveland Browns, takes the field in Friday's preseason game.
What is the deal 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 the 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-best 4,823 passing yards (though his team floundered at just 4-12 that season).
Then, in March 2021, a woman filed a lawsuit accusing Watson of sexually harassing her during a massage therapy session. Twenty-two more women filed subsequent lawsuits that spring, all accusing him of similar misconduct. (One lawsuit was dropped after a judge required the women to disclose their names.) Two additional suits were filed this summer.
Watson has denied all the claims.
The Texans chose 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 preseason begins this week; the regular season begins in September.
What exactly is Watson accused of?
The lawsuits filed against Watson describe a strikingly similar pattern of 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, the lawsuits say, Watson would turn sexual: asking the women for sex, directing their hands to his groin, touching them with his penis. Two women say he orally penetrated them without their consent. Others say he ejaculated on them.
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 had seen at least 66 massage therapists over a 17-month span from late 2019 to early 2021.
In addition to the 24 women who filed lawsuits, at least two 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 never assaulted anyone," Watson said in June. "I never harassed anyone or I never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything."
Where do things stand with the lawsuits? Were there any criminal charges?
There are no current criminal investigations against him. In March, a grand jury in Harris County, where Houston is located, declined to bring charges for 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 suits against him. One of the lawsuits had also named the Texans as a defendant for enabling Watson's behavior, including by providing him with nondisclosure agreements for massage therapists to sign; the team reached a settlement in July that covered 30 total women. This month, three of the remaining lawsuits were settled.
That leaves one 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 charge Watson, the Browns signed the quarterback to a lucrative five-year $230 million deal, structuring his contract to minimize lost pay in the case of a suspension this season (which is near certain).
The Browns have been without a steady franchise quarterback for decades. Their most recent hope, Baker Mayfield, helped the Browns return to the playoffs after a 17-year drought. But he had battled a shoulder injury and an apparently poor relationship with team officials, and the Browns traded him to the Carolina Panthers in July.
The acquisition of Watson was already controversial when the team signed him in March. (More than 2,000 people made donations to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center as a way to charitably protest the signing.)
And the controversy hasn't let up over the months since: An HBO special that aired in May helped motivate two additional accusers to file lawsuits, and the Times investigation revealed that Watson's lawyer had been in regular contact with Harris County prosecutors in the months leading up to the grand juries.
Will he play this season? How about in the future?
It's not clear yet whether he'll play in the regular season, which starts in September. A suspension of some sort is near certain.
The league and players union had agreed to use an arbitrator to decide on a punishment. This month, that arbitrator, a former federal judge, recommended a six-game suspension.
The NFL has appealed that decision in an effort to suspend him for longer. League Commissioner Roger Goodell says the evidence calls for a suspension of at least a year, calling Watson's conduct "predatory" and "egregious."
It's unclear when that appeal will be decided. The NFL Players Association has said it will sue if it believes the suspension is too long, so it's possible that this will be settled only in federal court.
In the meantime, without an active suspension, Watson is allowed to play. The Browns' first preseason game takes place Friday evening, and the team says it expects Watson to start at quarterback.
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