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Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson and NFL agree to 11-game suspension over sexual misconduct allegations

The star signal caller was accused of “sexualized contact” with massage therapists.

The NFL and Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson agreed to an 11-game suspension, officials said Thursday, for his “sexualized contact” with massage therapists.

Watson also signed off on a $5 million fine in an agreement that will keep him off the field for nearly two-thirds of the coming season before he is eligible for Cleveland’s Week 13 game against his former team, the Houston Texans, on Dec. 4.

"Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine, and a more substantial suspension."

Watson is one of the game's most heralded quarterbacks, having thrown for a league high 4,823 yards in 2020, the last season he played.

He said he's looking forward to getting back on to the field once the suspension is over.

“I’m grateful that the disciplinary process has ended and extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received throughout my short time with the Browns organization,” Watson said in a statement. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made."

Minutes later, Watson spoke to reporters and re-asserted his "innocence."

"I'm moving on with my career, with my life, and I continue to stand on my innocence," he said.

"Just because settlements and things like that happen doesn't mean that person is guilty for anything. I feel like a person has the opportunity to stand on his innocence and prove that, and we proved that on the legal side."

A league disciplinary officer ruled this month that Watson should be banned for six games, a punishment the league deemed inappropriately light in its appeal.

Retired federal Judge Sue L. Robinson, who presided over the disciplinary hearing and issued the six-game ban, said Watson “knew such sexualized contact was unwanted."

But she stopped short of the NFL’s desire to bench Watson for all of 2022, arguing that there is no such precedent to punish a player so severely for acts she deemed to be "non-violent sexual conduct."

Watson signed a five-year, $230 million guaranteed contract with the Browns in March amid allegations of sexual misconduct during massage sessions involving more than 20 women.

He has already missed a considerable amount of time on the field, having not played for Houston all of last season as his legal challenges unfolded and the team sought to trade him.

The 11-game ban and the $5 million penalty are "nowhere near enough," the National Organization for Women said.

"That $5 million represents 2.1739% of Watson’s new $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, which was negotiated after more than two dozen women had accused the star athlete of sexual misconduct," the advocacy group said in statement Thursday.   

"NOW is pleased to see behavioral evaluation and treatment recognized as best practices by the NFL, but they have a lot to learn about math."

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network also criticized Watson and his tightrope walk between remorse and defiance.

“Deshaun Watson had a chance to show he could change, and he immediately blew it," President Scott Berkowitz said in a statement.

"His comments to the media make clear that he doesn’t really accept any responsibility for his actions, and that he still doesn’t understand how much harm he caused, or the impact on the dozens of survivors he hurt.”

Two grand juries in Texas declined to bring charges against Watson in March. The district attorneys in both instances didn’t elaborate on why the grand juries declined to indict.

Watson had denied any wrongdoing involving the incidents, but last week he finally expressed remorse to the women who had come forward.

In a meeting with reporters after the suspension was announced Thursday, Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam declined to say whether they believe Watson has shown enough contrition or fully admitted to poor behavior.

"We've seen him grow the past four or five months. I think we've seen him recognize some things he wished he'd done differently, positions he wished he’d not put himself into," Jimmy Haslam said. "We anticipate that work continuing to go forward.” 

Watson's attorney, Rusty Hardin, said in a statement in June: “Deshaun Watson did nothing wrong. And as two grand juries have made clear, Deshaun did nothing illegal.”

The Browns were 8-9 last year and narrowly missed the playoffs. With Watson under center, Cleveland had hoped to upgrade its passing attack, which ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL last season.

In picking up Watson, the Browns traded away incumbent quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Now Cleveland could be left with journeyman Jacoby Brissett as its starting signal caller in Watson’s absence.

Even with the 11-game ban, Jimmy Haslam said he “absolutely” has no regrets about making the trade that took Watson to Cleveland in March.

"People deserve second chances," he said.

"Is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? And that's what we're going to do. Well, you can say, ‘That’s because he’s the star quarterback.' Well, of course, but if it was Joe Smith he wouldn't be on the headlines every day."

NOW questioned the NFL's commitment to taking on "toxic masculinity."

"Women need more than empty words and half-measures. The culture of toxic masculinity within the NFL must change — NOW," its statement said. 

"Deshaun Watson’s career and wealth won’t be damaged by this decision — unlike the dozens of women he has irreparably harmed. No, this isn’t good enough."