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NFL suspends quarterback Deshaun Watson for 6 games over sexual assault accusations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The NFL is now reviewing next steps for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who's saga of sexual misconduct allegations has seemed to follow no previous playbook. Even amid scandal earlier this year, he became the first player to land a $230 million guaranteed contract. And today, he became the first to face a six-game suspension under a new disciplinary process. Twenty four women have now sued Watson. All but one of those lawsuits have been settled out of court. Two grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges. And now fans and analysts alike are wondering if this suspension recommendation is enough. I talked about it earlier with Lindsay Jones, senior NFL editor for The Ringer, starting with a recap of the accusations.

LINDSAY JONES: So over the course of more than a year, more than two dozen women filed civil lawsuits in which they described various forms of sexual misconduct that they experienced in massage appointments. So what we've learned, really dating back to the spring of 2020, is that Deshaun Watson would seek out women on Instagram to perform massages on him. And many of those appointments ended up having some sort of sexual component. And many of these women in these lawsuits said that that sexual contact was unwanted.

CHANG: What has Watson said about these allegations so far?

JONES: He's said very little. He's had a couple of media availabilities since he was traded to the Browns back in March. He really hasn't really had any sort of explanation, nor has he really expressed any sort of contrition or remorse or really any understanding of why these cases were brought in the first place. And he has yet to address the media or really provide any sort of statement since the disciplinary decision was reached on Monday.

CHANG: OK. Well, as we have said, he is now facing a six-game suspension. And I'm curious, what are you hearing from people, Lindsay, as to whether that punishment is sufficient given the gravity of what's being alleged here?

JONES: Yeah. So my initial reading when I saw that it was six games was that it was a very strict interpretation of the NFL's personal conduct policy, which has a six-game suspension baseline for violations of the policy that are, you know, kind of sexual in nature. But when you look at the totality of how many complaints were brought against him in civil court, even though most of them now have been settled, what it didn't seem to account for was just the volume and the pattern of behavior. And so I think people who are wondering why is it only six games, is that out of line with other suspensions? - you know, Calvin Ridley from the Atlanta Falcons, who has been has been suspended for the entire 2022 season for betting on a couple of games while he was out, with, you know, dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct - it doesn't really line up. And then there are other people, certainly on Watson's side, in Watson's camp, that think six games is too severe, that, you know, he was not criminally charged, he never actually faced any sort of charges, that - why would he be suspended six games?

CHANG: Well, we should note that this is the NFL's first case to be heard by Sue Robinson, the NFL and NFL Players Association's disciplinary officer, instead of by league commissioner Roger Goodell. What is the significance of that piece of all this, I mean, given the fact that the NFL has been accused of uneven discipline for its players over the years, as you pointed out earlier?

JONES: Yes, you're exactly right. In 2020, when the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, one of the significant changes was making it that there would be a neutral arbiter who would decide discipline. Ultimately, Roger Goodell has the final say because the league could appeal. This was all new. There was no precedent for how Judge Robinson would issue her ruling. And I think right now, we're looking at the situation where - what happens next? If the NFL does decide to appeal this and bring this back to Roger Goodell's desk, it's potentially monumental for precedent setting and what it will mean for future disciplinary decisions for cases big and small.

CHANG: That is Lindsay Jones, senior NFL editor for The Ringer. Thank you very much for joining us again.

JONES: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.