The NFL will appeal Cleveland Brown quarterback Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension and seek a tougher penalty for violating its personal conduct policy for “egregious acts” of “sexualized contact” with massage therapists, the league said Wednesday.
The NFL said in a statement it has notified the players’ union it is appealing. It had three days from the ruling to appeal, the league said in the statement.
Retired Judge Sue L. Robinson presided over Watson’s case and issued the suspension Monday.
“The NFL notified the NFLPA that it will appeal Judge Robinson’s disciplinary decision and filed its brief this afternoon. Commissioner Roger Goodell will determine who will hear the appeal,” the league said.
Tony Buzbee, an attorney representing two dozen massage therapists who have accused Watson of misconduct, lauded the NFL’s decision to appeal Wednesday.
“Bravo to the NFL. It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said in a statement.
Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. No one with the players' union could be reached.
The judge ruled there was “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.
Robinson also said in her decision, “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 the allegations hovered over him, the judge said.
“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.”
A representative for the players' union on Monday said that Watson would abide by Robinson’s decree.
Union spokesman Brandon Parker urged Goodell not to contest the judge's decision, saying that “Watson and the union will not be appealing the ruling.”
Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN based in Washington D.C., an anti-sexual violence organization, applauded the decision to appeal the six-game suspension. The organization called on Watson to miss the entire season.
“While no disciplinary action will undo the trauma inflicted by Watson, a suspension of at least one year will send a strong message that his actions have no place in the NFL, or in our society," Berkowitz said in a statement.
The National Organization for Women has called the six-game suspension “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.
He has 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.