By Terrance Turner
August 18, 2022 (first filed March 18; updated June 7)
This story contains graphic details of sexual harassment and assault. Viewer discretion is advised.
BREAKING: Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for 11 games after facing a slew of lawsuits for sexual misconduct and assault allegations. According to ESPN: “The NFL and the NFL Players Association on Thursday reached a settlement in the Deshaun Watson disciplinary matter, agreeing that the Cleveland Browns quarterback will serve an 11-game suspension without pay after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
Watson will also pay a fine of $5 million and undergo mandatory evaluation by behavioral experts and follow their suggested treatment program.” Watson’s fine and contributions from both the NFL and Browns of $1 million each will create a fund to support non-profit organizations in the United States “that educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes,” the NFL said in announcing the settlement.
“I’m grateful that the disciplinary process has ended and extremely appreciative of the tremendous support I have received throughout my short time with the Browns organization,” Watson said in a statement released by the Browns. “I apologize once again for any pain this situation has caused. I take accountability for the decisions I made. My focus going forward is on working to become the best version of myself on and off the field and supporting my teammates however possible, while I’m away from the team. I’m excited about what the future holds for me in Cleveland.”
Watson later met with the media on Thursday, however, and maintained his innocence.
“I’ll continue to stand on my innocence, just because you know settlements, and things like that happen doesn’t mean that a person is guilty for anything. I feel like a person has an opportunity to stand on his innocence and prove that, and we proved that from a legal side,” he said, per ESPN.
The 11-game suspension begins on Aug. 30, and Watson may return to the team’s training facility and participate in limited activities on Oct. 10. On Nov. 14, he can resume practicing. Ironically, Watson’s first game back will be against his former team — the Houston Texans.
Watson was initially hit with a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, disciplinary officer and former federal judge Sue L. Robinson ruled Aug. 1. The move came after Watson was the subject over over two dozen lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct and harassment — including two allegations of forced oral sex.
NFL reporter Ian Rapoport added that, despite at least 24 suits filed against Watson, only five cases were brought to Judge Robinson. The NFL’s investigation relied on the testimony of only four therapists (the fifth accuser’s testimony was excluded because she declined to be interviewed by investigators). The judge reached her ruling in part because she found those suits to be “nonviolent cases”, Rapoport said. Indeed, the judge claimed: “There is no allegation that Mr. Watson exerted force against any of the therapists.”
Robinson determined that Watson had committed sexual assault (defined by the NFL as “unwanted sexual contact”) and that Watson knew (or should’ve known) that the contact was unwanted. Robinson ruled that Watson had violated the NFL’s conduct policy but settled for just six games — a stark contrast to the one-year ban against Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley for gambling.
Judge Robinson found that “Mr. Watson’s pattern of behavior is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.” But she somehow also found that this was “the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for non-violent sexual conduct”:
Watson participated in a preseason game on Aug. 12. Amid boos from the crowd, he took part in his first team action in 19 months. Prior to the game, he did something he hadn’t done in months: he apologized.
“I want to say that I am truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation,” Watson said in an interview with the Browns broadcast team. “The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position, I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character.”
Watson in July settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits against him; he later agreed to settle three of the remaining four. In June, he faced a 24th lawsuit accusing him of sexual misconduct. In addition, an explosive new report in the New York Times undercuts some of Watson’s public statements about his behavior and reveals that the extent of his activity was more widespread and frequent than previously known:
Watson has said publicly that he hired about 40 different therapists across his five seasons in Houston, but the Times’s reporting found that he booked appointments with at least 66 different women in just the 17 months from fall 2019 through spring 2021. A few of these additional women, speaking publicly for the first time, described experiences that undercut Watson’s insistence that he was only seeking professional massage therapy.
One woman, who did not sue Watson or complain to the police, told the Times that he was persistent in his requests for sexual acts during their massage, including ‘begging’ her to put her mouth on his penis. “I specifically had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy.From the New York Times
This latest lawsuit was filed by a former masseuse, represented by lawyer Tony Buzbee. Remarkably, Watson’s lawyer Rusty Hardin appears to not have been aware of this woman’s existence before June 6th. In a statement quoted by NBC Sports, Hardin said: “We are unable to respond to the new lawsuit at this time. Our legal team has not had time to investigate this new filing and had not heard her name until today.”
According to the Houston Chronicle, the woman is a massage therapist who owned and operated her own business in Houston. She’d just graduated from massage therapy school when Watson contacted her, the suit says, and she did not yet have many clients. Initially, she was excited at the opportunity to have a high-profile client like Watson reach out to her.
Watson spoke on the phone with the woman before the first session. He said he “really wanted to support black-owned businesses” and that she didn’t have to wear scrubs. He also insisted that the appointment take place that evening. The woman thought the requests odd, but scheduled him for the next day.
Watson arrived the next day and lay down on the massage table. He didn’t want the traditional sheet draping, instead asking for a small towel to cover him. He received a phone call during the massage and had to leave, the suit says. he told her to “just keep this between us” and paid her $100 through CashApp (though she’d quoted him $55). He later reached out to arrange a second session. Again, he didn’t want a sheet and requested a towel.
This time, he insisted on being face up; he wanted a focus on his upper body and abdomen. He demanded she work on his quads and upper thighs, becoming more aggressive as he asked her to move higher. Watson became aroused at some point, and the towel fell off. He was now erect and completely naked; the masseuse immediately stopped the massage, and Watson started to masturbate, according to the suit. Watson then stood up and ”continued masturbating more aggressively,” the lawsuit says, and asked the woman, “Where do you want me to put it?”
The woman “was in complete shock” and froze, the lawsuit states. Watson continued masturbating, finishing on the woman’s chest and face. The plaintiff immediately left the room, went to the bathroom, and cleaned Watson’s DNA off of her. She quit massage therapy shortly thereafter.
This most recent suit comes after a 23rd suit was filed against Watson on May 31 in Harris County. This plaintiff says she was motivated to file the litigation after watching a segment featuring two of Watson’s accusers on HBO’s”Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”. The suit details alleged misconduct by Watson two years ago.
Plaintiff is a professionally licensed cosmetologist. She is a single mother who worked for [redacted] Spa in Houston. Plaintiff had three encounters with Defendant Watson, the first on June 7, 2020. The second session on August 24, 2020. The last session was in late August or early September 2020. Watson’s behavior grew worse during every massage. Plaintiff is a licensed professional and has never had any issues prior to experiencing Defendant’s conduct.
Defendant Watson first made contact with Plaintiff on Instagram via direct message on June 7, 2020 at around 3 am in the morning, wherein he inquired about wanting a massage. He stated that he had heard about [redacted] Spa because of a promotional video that Plaintiff posted on her page. Plaintiff had never had any type of contact with Defendant Watson prior to this message. Plaintiff had never worked with any athletes from the Texans organization. Plaintiff found it somewhat peculiar that a NFL player with millions of Instagram followers would request a massage from her, because she is not a well-known professional and it was her belief that a player like Watson likely had access to an entire team of trainers and the like. She did not even know who Deshaun Watson was at the time. Her friends encouraged her to do the massage […]
A massage was ultimately scheduled to take place at [redacted] Spa on June 7, 2020. Watson specifically told Plaintiff that it “can just be you”‘ when she told him she would inform her co-worker with whom she would regularly do massages. [She was] perplexed by the text, after some thought, Plaintiff concluded that Watson likely wanted privacy and did not want to be bothered by those impressed by his stature.from the May 31 lawsuit
During the first massage, Watson only wanted the woman to massage his glutes and groin area, the suit says, and repeatedly requested that she digitally penetrate him. Though confused by the request, she gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was a fetish that Watson did not want the NFL to know about. She “shrugged it off”, the lawsuit says.
Watson and Plaintiff arranged a second session for Aug. 24, 2020. Page 4 of the suit states that on this occasion, Watson grabbed the woman’s backside and kept brushing up against her. Then things escalated: “He kept asking Plaintiff if she wanted his penis in her mouth. Plaintiff was feeling extremely uncomfortable by this point, but she wanted to stay professional and not cause any conflict. Watson was much bigger and much stronger, and they were alone in a room. She was deathly afraid of what he would do if she reprimanded him. She also knew that [her boss] was very proud to have Watson as a client and [the boss] had emphasized to Plaintiff that she needed to keep Watson happy. She felt trapped.”
The lawsuit mentions that Watson had an erection and was starting to secrete pre-ejaculate — which he allegedly kept trying to make her touch. The masseuse (now identified by the Times as Nia Smith) cut the appointment short by 15 minutes, as she stated it was the most uncomfortable experience of her life. She resolved to avoid Watson in the future. But he came back. Though Smith did not want to do a third massage, she felt she could not refuse Watson as a client because of her boss (now identified by the Times as Dionne Louis). So she acquiesced.
“By the last session, Watson was done with any niceties or [with] hiding what he really wanted,” the suit states. Smith offered to leave the room while he changed and give him an opportunity to get under the draping. “Watson told Plaintiff that he was not going to put on any draping. He also told her she did not need to leave the room. He took his pants off and got completely naked in front of Plaintiff. He then got onto the massage table and refused to cover himself, exposing himself to her. When Plaintiff tried to massage his legs, Watson became aggressive and demanded that she only massage his buttocks and made her massage that area. He repeatedly requested that Plaintiff have sex with him. He told Plaintiff he had a condom in his bag. He touched Plaintiff in between her legs. She had to massage him from a distance to avoid his groping.”
In November 2020, after Smith stopped working at the spa, she posted text messages from Watson, along with his phone number and his Cash App receipts, on Instagram (per the Times). Clearly angered, she wrote, “I could really expose you,” adding an expletive.
Days later, when Watson went to work at the Texans’ stadium, he found a non-disclosure agreement in his locker. In a deposition, he said that Brent Naccara (the Texans’ director of security) put it there after Watson told him about Smith’s Instagram posts. He began taking the NDA to massages, that same week, according to the Times.
Worse yet, the Houston Texans also furnished the room where Watson received some of these massages. “It’s unclear whether the Texans knew how many massages Watson was getting or who was providing them. But their resources helped support his massage habit away from the team. Watson acknowledged in a deposition that the Texans arranged for him to have “a place” at The Houstonian Hotel, a high-end hotel on North Post Oak Lane in the Memorial area.
According to New York Times sports reporter Jenny Vrentas, Watson “used the fitness club, dined there and also set up massages in hotel rooms. At least seven women met him at the hotel for appointments, according to interviews and records, including two who filed civil lawsuits and two who complained to police.”
The Texans weren’t aware of the massage appointments at the hotel “that I know of,” Watson said in the deposition. He also said that his access to the property was not under his name. One woman who gave Watson a massage at The Houstonian said she was told the room was registered to a member of the Texans’ training staff.
In fact, the woman who sued Watson this week (the 24th suit) says that he asked to meet her at the Houstonian. (The woman wasn’t comfortable with that because she knew Watson’s girlfriend — and had at one point babysat her!) The woman told Watson that she wanted to keep things “professional and respectful”.
“Oh most definitely always professional,” Watson replied. “I even have a NDA I have therapist sign too.” The situation became anything but professional, however, as detailed above.
Another woman who did not sue Watson but spoke to the Times (on condition of anonymity) said that Watson initiated sexual contact in all three of their appointments. In one session, she began by working on Watson’s back. But when he flipped over, she said, his demeanor and voice changed, and he began aggressively dictating where he wanted her to touch him.
In their first session, she said, he got into the “happy baby yoga pose — on his back with his feet in his hands — and asked her to massage his perineum. She laughed off the request but said he grabbed her wrist and put her hand there,” the Times says. “The woman said Watson twice initiated sexual intercourse, once by pulling down the scrubs she was wearing.”
Watson decided in March to waive his no-trade clause and be traded to the Browns after initially meeting with and rejecting them. The Browns gave Watson a new five-year, $230 million contract, sources told Schefter. (That included $184 million over the first four years of his new contract.) The full $230 million is guaranteed, sources told ESPN, setting a record for highest guarantee given to an NFL player.
The deal is expected to include three first-round picks, a third-round pick and potentially a fifth-round pick, league sources told ESPN. The deal offers Watson $184 million over the first four years and $230 million cumulatively.
As one columnist for USA Today wrote: “Watson is now past the criminal phase of those accusations, but he is by no means out of the woods with the NFL, who will undoubtedly broker an internal deal in which it makes an ‘example’ of Watson with some sort of suspension, and touts this trade as part of free agency’s Grand Theater.
What this trade tells us is what we already knew — Deshaun Watson is a very talented quarterback, and because of that, anything he does off the field will be minimized and ignored by the league to a greater or lesser degree — to whatever degree the league finds convenient at any particular time.”
A grand jury declined to indict Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on charges related to sexual assault or harassment of early two dozen massage therapists. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement: “After a Harris County grand jury was presented all the evidence and had the opportunity to hear from all witnesses, grand jurors declined to indict Deshaun Watson. Grand jury proceedings are secret by law, so no information related to their inquiry may be disclosed.”
Watson had been named in 22 lawsuits by a variety of women who claimed alternately that he exposed himself, groped them, and pressured them to perform oral sex on him. According to the New York Times, ”Although the 22 suits filed to date share many similarities, only two include claims of sexual assault: Watson was said in both cases to have pressured women to perform oral sex during massages and was accused in one of also having grabbed a woman’s buttocks and vagina […] the incidents cited in the suits were said to have occurred from March 2020 to March 2021.”
Massage therapist Ashley Solis was the first person to file a lawsuit against Watson. She revealed herself in a press conference, alongside lawyer Tony Buzbee. In that press conference on April 6, 2021, Solis stated that she was traumatized and solicited by the NFL player and that Watson was directly responsible: “I am a survivor of assault and harassment. Deshaun Watson is my assaulter and my harasser,” Solis said in a statement. “Watson assaulted and harassed me on March 30, 2020, in my own home, doing what I love most: massage therapy.”
Solis wept as she read from a prepared statement during a press conference last April. She said she can no longer operate on patients without her hands shaking, adding that images of Watson’s face flash across her mind during sessions with others. She said the profession that “I love so much has been forever tainted.”
“He needs to be held accountable for his actions,” Solis said. Though Watson has denied assaulting or harassing Solis or any other woman, his testimony undercuts that denial. In the testimony that was obtained by USA Today, Watson answered questions regarding an encounter from March 2020 involving Ashley Solis. The testimony says Solis ended up crying after the encounter. Watson left Solis’ home and followed up in a text message afterward apologizing for the incident.
“Sorry about you feeling uncomfortable,” Watson wrote according to a screenshot posted by Solis’ lawyers. “Never were the intentions. Lmk if you want to work in the future. My apologies.”
The second accuser, Lauren Baxley, also spoke out at the April 6 press conference. she, too, read from a letter. In the letter, Lauren Baxley called Watson “a predator with power” and alleged he touched her with his penis multiple times during a massage session. She said that after the session, she felt shame and terror that no one would believe her.
“There is trauma associated with unwanted sexual contact and assault in a place that’s meant to bring peace and therapy, but there are even deeper terrors that you have brought into my life,” Baxley said.
By that point, another lawsuit had been filed. Per ESPN, “The lawsuit was filed by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee on Wednesday night [March 17] and appeared on the Harris County district clerk’s website Thursday morning [March 18]. This time, the accuser was a massage therapist who alleges that Watson sent a direct message to the plaintiff over Instagram and then scheduled a massage for Dec. 28, 2020, at an office building in Houston.
“After leaving the room, the massage therapist alleges she returned to find Watson lying on the massage table on his stomach with just a small towel covering his buttocks. She alleges that when Watson turned over midway through the massage, he “got more aggressive, forcefully telling her to move her hand down to his pubic area.”
The plaintiff alleges that she felt “intimidated and threatened” and “she was afraid of what someone like Watson could do if she did not submit to his demands.” she also said in the lawsuit that Watson made it clear that he could either help or hurt her career depending on whether she acquiesced to his demands. The lawsuit further alleges that Watson forced the woman to perform oral sex on him and that she did not consent.
That dovetails with another, later lawsuit filed in March 2021, in which the plaintiff claimed Watson “purposely” exposed himself to the massage therapist and touched her with his penis and ultimately groped her, coerced her into oral sex and ejaculated on her.
Buzbee represented all of the women who filed civil suits against Watson. But Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, firmly denied all the accusations against his client and further alleged that they were a “money grab”. on his website, he revealed that ”emails sent to Mr. Watson’s representatives in California reveal that Mr. Buzbee and attorneys at his firm sought $100,000 in hush money on behalf of Ms. Solis to quietly settle the allegations the month before he filed the first lawsuit.”
In responding to the representative’s questions about the need for such a payment, Mr. Buzbee responded: “We made a legit demand. You rejected it. We won’t be making another or bid against ourselves.” He then added: “This is Houston, Texas. Perhaps you should find him a lawyer here so you can apprise both you and your client of the landscape here and who you are dealing with.”
A number of lawsuits soon followed, which spurred an investigation by the National Football League, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Houston Police Department. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Eight of the women who sued Watson filed criminal complaints against him with Houston police and appeared before the grand jury. Two other women who didn’t sue Watson also filed police complaints.” A total of 10 complaints were filed by late July 2021, according to the CBS Houston affiliate KHOU. Despite the dozens of lawsuits surrounding Watson, the grand jury in Harris County chose not to indict him.
“This is definitely a very emotional moment for me,” Watson said. “I know we’re far from being done handling what we need to handle on the legal side, but today is definitely a big day. I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for letting the truth be heard. I thank everyone that was a part of this, of seeing and hearing both sides. That’s what my team wanted to do, was to have a fair slate of us telling our side of the story and letting the conclusion come down to what happened today and that’s what the grand jury decided on, so thank you and I just thank my Lord and Savior again.
“I’m just going to keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community. We’re going to continue on the legal side, off the field, to handle what we need to handle, but also ready to get back on the field, been prepping for that and ready to go for that.