What you should know about the Deshaun Watson controversy as the NFL preseason begins: NPR

Deshaun Watson at Cleveland Browns training camp in July.

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Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Deshaun Watson at Cleveland Browns training camp in July.

Nick Cammett/Getty Images

The NFL is back this month – and with it the possibility of one of the game’s most controversial players returning to the field.

In the year and a half since star quarterback Deshaun Watson last played in an NFL game, dozens of women have come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

It is widely expected that he will be suspended as a result. This month a referee recommended a six-game ban – a sentence criticized by many as too short. After intense backlash, the NFL appealed the decision, seeking a one-year or longer suspension.

Now, while the league and Watson await the outcome of the appeal, which could come at any time, Watson is ready to play for the first time since the 2020 season when his new team, the Cleveland Browns, take the field in Friday’s preseason game.

What’s up with Deshaun Watson?

Here’s the synopsis: Watson was an exciting young quarterback drafted in the first round by the Houston Texans in 2017. As a starter for the Texans, he helped lead the team to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019. His own performance peaked in 2020 with 33 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a league-best 4,823 yards (although his team faltered). at only 4-12 this season).

Then, in March 2021, a woman filed a lawsuit accusing Watson of sexually harassing her during a massage therapy session. Twenty-two other women filed additional lawsuits that spring, all charging him with similar wrongdoing. (A lawsuit was dropped after a judge ordered the women to reveal their names.) Two more lawsuits were filed this summer.

Watson has denied all claims.

The Texans decided to bench him for the 2021 season. He was traded to the Cleveland Browns that year, despite the NFL’s ongoing investigation. The 2022 pre-season starts this week; the regular season starts in September.

What exactly is Watson accused of?

The lawsuits filed against Watson describe a strikingly similar pattern of behavior. Watson would hire a massage therapist for a massage session. The massages took place in a variety of locations, including spas, hotel rooms, and Watson’s home and office.

At some point during the massage, the complaints say, Watson would turn sexual: He would ask the women for sex, pointing their hands to his groin and touching it with his penis. Two women say he entered them orally without their consent. Others say he ejaculated on them.

The number of massage therapists visited by Watson far outnumbers the number of lawsuits. The New York Times reported this summer that Watson saw at least 66 massage therapists over a 17-month period from late 2019 to early 2021.

In addition to the 24 plaintiffs, at least two criminal complaints were filed. Other women hired by Watson during this period reported no problems during their sessions, and more than a dozen others submitted statements of support for Watson.

“I’ve never attacked anyone,” Watson said in June. “I have never harassed anyone or disrespected anyone. I have never forced anyone to do anything.”

How about the lawsuits? Were there any criminal charges?

There are currently no criminal investigations against him. In March, a grand jury in Harris County, where Houston is located, declined to enter nine criminal counts; A second grand jury in neighboring Brazoria County also dismissed the indictment in a tenth case.

In June, Watson agreed to settle 20 of the 24 lawsuits against him. In one of the lawsuits, the Texans were also named as defendants for enabling Watson’s conduct, including by providing him non-disclosure agreements for massage therapists to sign; The team reached an agreement in July that covered a total of 30 women. Three of the remaining lawsuits were settled this month.

That leaves an ongoing lawsuit. A trial is currently expected in spring 2023.

What’s the deal with the Browns signing?

After the first grand jury refused to indict Watson, the Browns signed the quarterback to a lucrative five-year, $230 million contract and structured his contract so that the loss of salary in the event of a suspension this season (which is almost certain) is minimized.

The Browns have been without a permanent franchise quarterback for decades. Their latest hope, Baker Mayfield, helped the Browns return to the playoffs after a 17-year drought. But struggling with a shoulder injury and what appeared to be a poor relationship with team officials, the Browns traded him to the Carolina Panthers in July.

Watson’s acquisition was already controversial when the team signed him in March. (More than 2,000 people donated to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center to charitably protest the signing.)

And the controversy hasn’t abated in the months since: An HBO special that aired in May helped motivate two more accusers to file lawsuits, and that Times Investigations revealed that Watson’s attorney was in regular contact with Harris County prosecutors in the months leading up to grand juries.

Will he play this season? How about in the future?

Whether he will play in the regular season, which starts in September, is not yet clear. Some sort of suspension is all but certain.

The league and players’ union had agreed to use a referee to decide on punishment. This month, that umpire, a former federal judge, recommended a six-game suspension.

The NFL appealed that decision, seeking a longer suspension. League commissioner Roger Goodell says evidence requires at least a year’s suspension and calls Watson’s behavior “predatory” and “outrageous”.

It is unclear when the appeal will be decided. The NFL Players Association has said it will sue if it thinks the suspension is too long. Therefore, it is possible that this will only be settled in a federal court.

Meanwhile, Watson is allowed to play without an active suspension. The Browns’ first preseason game is Friday night, and the team expects Watson to start as quarterback.

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