Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended for 11 games during the 2022 NFL season and fined $5 million for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy per the terms of a settlement reached between the league and the NFL Players Association, the league announced on Thursday.
Additionally, Watson must commit to mandatory evaluation and treatment.
Per the NFL, Watson's suspension will take effect following the final roster cutdown on Aug. 30 and he will be eligible for reinstatement on Nov. 28. Watson would first be eligible to play in Week 13 against the Houston Texans, his former team. NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported Watson will be eligible to return to the Browns' facility on Oct. 10 and resume practicing on Nov. 14. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters on Thursday that Watson will not play again in the preseason.
"Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on Thursday. "This settlement requires compliance with a professional evaluation and treatment plan, a significant fine, and a more substantial suspension. We are grateful to Judge Robinson and Peter Harvey for their efforts in addressing these matters, which laid the foundation for reaching this conclusion."
The league also announced Thursday that the NFL and the Browns each will contribute $1 million, which, when combined with Watson's $5 million fine, will create a fund of $7 million to support the prevention of sexual misconduct and assault.
"This fund will support the work of non-profit organizations across the country that educate young people on healthy relationships, promote education and prevention of sexual misconduct and assault, support survivors, and related causes," the NFL said on Thursday.
The league and the players union reached the agreement ahead of a ruling by former N.J. attorney general Peter. C. Harvey, who was designated by Goodell to hear the league’s appeal of Watson's six-game suspension.
Pelissero reported Friday that Thursday's settlement covers the four cases disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson ruled on in determining Watson's initial discipline, as well as any substantially similar violations before the date of the agreement (Aug. 18). That means that new allegations of the same conduct from 2019-2021 would not be subject to NFL investigation or discipline, per Pelissero. The NFL, however, could still investigate if new allegations arise against Watson that are different in nature.
"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 on Thursday. "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 has reached confidential settlements with 23 of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits against him alleging he committed sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. Watson has previously denied any wrongdoing and maintained any sex with the women was consensual. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints filed by 10 women.
In speaking to reporters on Thursday following the news of the settlement agreement, Watson maintained his innocence and explained his decision to settle the civil cases against him.
"I've always stood on my innocence and always said I've never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I'm continuing to stand on that," Watson said. "But at the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career. For us to be able to move forward, I have to be able to take steps and put pride to the side, and I'm going to continue to stand on my innocence and keep pushing forward, and I've always stood on not disrespecting or sexual assaulting anyone."
Watson on Aug. 12 expressed remorse and for the first time publicly apologized to the women he "impacted." Watson's "lack of expressed remorse" was cited as an "aggravating" factor in Robinson's report.
Watson was asked Thursday why he waited so long to publicly issue an apology.
"I apologized beforehand," Watson said. "I think the second time I spoke to you guys I actually apologized, but I think for some people it didn't maybe register as I was apologizing. But you know, I just wanted to clarify I was apologizing to all women and people that was affected about this situation because it's definitely a tough situation."
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam released the following statement on Thursday:
"As we have previously conveyed, Deshaun and his representatives have abided by the NFL and NFLPA structure awaiting a final decision and we have respected the process. Now that a decision on discipline has been reached, we understand this is a real opportunity to create meaningful change and we are committed to investing in programs in Northeast Ohio that will educate our youth regarding awareness, understanding, and most importantly, prevention of sexual misconduct and the many underlying causes of such behavior. Since Deshaun entered our building, he has been an outstanding member of our organization and shown a true dedication to working on himself both on and off the field. We will continue to support him as he focuses on earning the trust of our community."
Watson's initial discipline was handed down by Robinson on Aug. 1. Robinson, a former federal judge, wrote in a 16-page report that the NFL successfully "carried its burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Mr. Watson violated the (personal-conduct) policy" by engaging in "sexual assault; conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person; and conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL."
According to Robinson's report, the NFL had argued Watson should be suspended for at least the entire 2022 season. Robinson, however, wrote that she was "bound 'by standards of fairness and consistency of treatment among players similarly situated'" in her decision.
The NFL announced its appeal of Robinson's decision on Aug. 3. The following day, Goodell appointed Harvey to hear the appeal. Per the league's personal-conduct policy, the appeal was based on a "review of the existing record," meaning that no new evidence or testimony was permitted.
Goodell explained the league's decision to appeal Watson's suspension on Aug. 9, stating the evidence showed Watson committed multiple violations of the NFL's personal-conduct policy.
"We've seen the evidence," Goodell said. "[Robinson] was very clear about the evidence, should we enforce the evidence. That there was multiple violations here, and they were egregious, and it was predatory behavior. Those are things that we always felt were important for us to address in a way that's responsible."
Veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett is in line to start for the Browns during Watson's suspension. The Browns signed Brissett to a one-year contract in March.