Recently acquired Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (pictured as a Houston Texan) Credit: Wikipedia (Jeffrey Beall, Deshaun Watson, CC BY 4.0)

Deshaun Watson is arguably one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL, perhaps the most consequential position in American team sports. The 26-year-old didn’t appear in any of the Texans’ 17 games this past season after officially requesting a trade in January of 2021 despite being fully healthy and available.

Two months later, the first of what would rise to 22 civil lawsuits were filed against Watson by women alleging inapprorpiate conduct and sexual assault. He also faced 10 criminal complaints. After a Harris County (Texas) grand jury declined to indict Watson on allegations of sexual assault on March 11, last Thursday, a second grand jury in Brazoria County (Texas) also decided against indicting Watson.

The 2020 NFL leader in passing yards, with 4,823, was traded by the Texans to the Cleveland Browns on March 18 for a hefty price. The Browns sent the Texans three first round picks—2022, 2023 and 2024—in addition to a 2023 third round pick and 2024 fourth round pick. The Browns subsequently made Watson the highest paid player in the league’s history, a five-year deal valued at $230 million fully guaranteed.

At his introductory Browns press conference last Friday, Watson adamantly professed his innocence. “I never assaulted, I never disrespected and I never harassed any woman in my life,” said Watson. “I wasn’t raised that way. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way over the course of my life. That’s not in my DNA.

“As far as the details of the things that they’re alleging,” he continued, “I can’t speak on that because there’s an ongoing investigation. But in the future, once everything’s resolved, I would sit down and love to talk about it.”

Regardless of the outcome of the civil suits, Watson is facing discipline by the NFL. At the conclusion of the league’s annual meeting on Wednesday in Palm Beach, Florida, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the league’s stance on the issue.

“Obviously these are serious charges, so we’re looking at it seriously,” Goodell said. “The personal conduct policy is something that is very important to us, and it does not need a criminal violation in order to pursue it.”

An NFL investigation of the case is being conducted and at its conclusion will be referred to an arbitrator mutually chosen by the NFL and NFL Players’ Association as laid out in the league’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement. The arbitrator will then decide on the disciplinary action—if any—to be levied against Watson.

They can use precedent from the case of Ben Roethlisberger. The future Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, who retired after his team’s 42-21 opening round playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs this past January, was suspended for six games without pay in April of 2010 for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy one week after prosecutors in Georgia decided not to charge him for allegedly sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in the bathroom of a Milledgeville, Georgia, nightclub. At the time, Roethisberger, now 40, was also ordered to undergo a behavioral evaluation.

“I recognize that the allegations in Georgia were disputed and that they did not result in criminal charges being filed against you,” Goodell wrote to Roethlisberger 12 years ago. “My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor.

“That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.”

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