The professional football fate of an NFL star quarterback is set to be determined this week amid sexual misconduct allegations.
A three-day internal disciplinary hearing was held for Cleveland Brown quarterback Deshaun Watson, who could face up to a season-long suspension from the league, after he was accused of sexual assault by nearly two dozen women.
Last month, Watson reached a settlement in 20 of the 24 lawsuits filed by women who accused Watson of sexual assault and harassment while he played for the Houston Texans. It was made clear during the hearing that the league is seeking an indefinite suspension of at least a year for the quarterback.
Watson has never been arrested or criminally charged for the allegations and two grand juries declined to indict Watson after reviewing the evidence.
Disciplinary officer Judge Sue L. Robinson is expected to release her decision next week after a review of post-hearing briefs from both sides.
For years, the NFL has faced criticism for the way the league has handled allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault against women. More recently, the league has tried to make amends by enforcing a personal conduct policy for all NFL employees, current and former players specifically aimed at addressing these issues.
Mary Kate Cabot covers the Browns for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and spoke to ABC News’ “Start Here” about what’s expected for the NFL’s next play regarding the situation.
“Well, these were from 24 massage therapists, mostly in the Houston area, who during from about the fall of 2020, they accused Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage appointments,” said Cabot. “[Although] 20 of the 24 have now been settled… this could mean sort of the beginning of the end of this whole saga.”
Watson has maintained his innocence throughout the allegations and the Cleveland Browns have stood behind the player.
“If we didn’t get comfortable with Deshaun the person, it wouldn’t have mattered how talented he was, we wouldn’t have pursued the trade,” said Browns general manager Andrew Berry during a press conference last month. “We believe in Deshaun, the person.”
Despite not admitting to wrongdoing, Cabot said that Watson had recently told her that he is “seeking some counseling.”
“He's taking advantage of the resources the Browns have made available. I think that will be a mitigating factor in the eyes of the NFL,” said Cabot. “But the NFL now must decide on the discipline for Deshaun Watson.”
Although the settlements do not officially assign blame one way or another, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear last month that Watson is still under investigation by the NFL.
“The personal conduct policy does not need a criminal violation to be a violation of the personal conduct policy,” said Goodell during a press conference.
In March, the Cleveland Browns reportedly guaranteed Watson $230 million over five years in a trade deal, the most guaranteed money at signing of any NFL player in history, according to ESPN.
Cabot said that the NFL Players Association is bracing for “a very long suspension” of Watson from the league.
“They plan to vigorously fight it,” said Cabot. “The next big step that everyone has to cross is to find out what the NFL has in mind and then how Deshaun's side will fight it.”
During a press conference hosted by the Cleveland Browns last week, Watson addressed the allegations. He said he regrets the impact the situation has made on the community.
"That includes my family. That includes this organization. That includes my teammates in this locker room that have to answer to these questions,” said Watson. “That includes the fan base of the Cleveland Browns… It's tough to have to deal with."
Cabot said the league is now grappling with what is the right amount of disciplinary action.
“It's going to be difficult out there in the court of public opinion and they're going to have to walk this fine line between making it seem like they really do value, respect and believe women who bring these things up,” she said. “And also being fair to the fact that there is no evidence that anything happened.”