The NFL has three days to appeal the findings by retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson, who presided over the disciplinary hearing and issued the decision.
Robinson ruled there's "sufficient circumstantial evidence to support the NFL’s contention" that Watson sought sexual contact with several massage therapists he reached via social media.
The quarterback "knew such sexualized contact was unwanted," the judge added.
But she questioned the NFL's desire to bench Watson for all of 2022.
"According to the NFL, if this recommended sentence is unprecedented (as characterized by Mr. Watson and the NFLPA), that is because his conduct is unprecedented," Robinson added.
"It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact."
The most typical suspensions for acts of domestic violence have been six-game bans, according to Robinson, adding that Watson is entitled to the benefit of some mitigating considerations.
He's a "first-time offender," had "an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events" and was already sidelined throughout 2021 as these accusations hovered over him, according to the judge.
"Mr. Watson is hereby suspended for six (6) regular-season games without pay," she ruled. "Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL."
Watson was also ordered to limit his massages to "Club-directed sessions and Club-approved massage therapists."
The NFL said Monday it's evaluating the ruling and determining next steps.
Watson's lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
A National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) rep on Monday reiterated the union's stance from a day earlier, that Watson would abide by Robinson's decree.
NFLPA spokesman Brandon Parker urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell not to contest Robinson, saying that "Watson and the union will not be appealing the ruling."
Watson was on the practice field in Berea, Ohio, on Monday as he was warmly greeted by cheering fans and mobbed by autograph-seeking youngsters.
Coach Kevin Stefanski spoke to reporters for about 10 minutes after practice, with only about 30 seconds of that session not devoted to questions about Watson.
Stefanski said he was limited to what he could discuss. "This was collectively bargained (NFL disciplinary process) so I want to respect Judge Robinson and her opinion," he said.
The coach said he still plans to play Watson in pre-season games even if the QB will likely be sidelined for at least the first third of the season.
Stefanski said he has faith in the quarterback. "I'm confident that Deshaun will make good decisions on and off the field," he said.
In her ruling, Robinson took issue with Watson for his "lack of expressed remorse."
But Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, in a joint statement, insisted the opposite was true.
"We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process," they said.
"We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
The National Organization for Women said the six-game suspension falls short, calling it "unacceptable, insulting, and dangerous — but not surprising."
"The NFL has had a violence against women problem for years — and everyone knows it," the group said in a statement. "Deshaun Watson must not be allowed to profit from his horrific behavior, and the NFL must change its business model that allows, enables, and hides sexual misconduct into one that respects women and holds abusers accountable. "
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 the Houston Texans all of last season as his legal challenges unfolded and the team sought to trade him.
Few, if any, American companies are more closely monitored for its handling for domestic violence incidents by employees than the NFL.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was initially suspended for just two games in 2014 after troubling surveillance video showed him knocking out his future wife and dragging her body off an elevator.
Rice was eventually suspended indefinitely but the seemingly light initial discipline forced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to admit: "I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
Other notable cases of domestic violence suspensions in recent years have included: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (six games in 2017), Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy (10 games in 2015) and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith (four games in 2018).
The lawyer representing the women accusing Watson of misconduct announced confidential settlements in 23 of 24 civil lawsuits.
"This case started because one woman had the fortitude to step forward and make her voice heard. Her courage inspired many others with the same experience," attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. "None of this saga would have occurred without that one brave voice. One person can make a difference.
Buzbee declined to speak substantively about any NFL action against Watson.
"I’ve said in the beginning that the civil process and the NFL’s disciplinary process are very different," he said. "My role was to advance the cause of my clients, in civil court—nothing more."
Watson’s accusers allege he improperly touched them after hiring them as massage therapists and personal trainers.
Two grand juries in Texas declined to bring charges against Watson in March. The district attorneys in both instances did not elaborate on why the grand juries declined to indict.
Watson has denied wrongdoing.
His attorney, Rusty Hardin, said in a June statement: “Deshaun Watson did nothing wrong. And as two grand juries have made clear, Deshaun did nothing illegal.”
“Deshaun has always acknowledged consensual sexual activity with three of the plaintiff massage therapists after massages. And Deshaun has repeatedly sworn under oath that he did not force any of his accusers to have sexual contact.”
Watson, a 26-year-old native of Gainesville, Georgia, and Clemson University alumnus, has been in the NFL since 2017. He had his best season in 2020 with the Texans, leading the league with 4,823 yards passing along with 33 touchdowns.
A six-game ban would make Watson eligible to play in the Browns’ seventh game of this upcoming season on Oct. 23 when Cleveland is set to visit the Baltimore Ravens.