CLEVELAND, Ohio — Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, believes the NFL will render its initial decision on Watson’s possible discipline by June or July, and that they’ll want to talk to Watson again beforehand.
“We should know what their position is initially sometime in June, and then everybody will figure out if there’s going to be a hearing about it or can people work things out, or whatever,” Hardin told cleveland.com by phone on Friday evening. “The only thing that’s certain is that they want to try to get everything done this summer — and earlier than later in the summer. Past that, we don’t really have any firm dates or possibilities.”
Hardin also said “we expect they will want to talk to him again” in a continuation of interviews regarding the 24 allegations by massage therapists of sexual misconduct during appointments. Two separate grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, but 22 therapists have civil suits against him, including 20 who accuse him of sexual harassment and two of sexual assault.
Hardin said Watson cooperated fully with NFL investigators Lisa Friel and Jennifer Gaffney during three days of questioning Monday through Wednesday in Houston, but the review under terms of the Personal Conduct Policy is ongoing. Thursday, Watson flew about 30 members of the Browns offense via private jet to the Bahamas for three days of on-field work and team-bonding, all at his expense.
“This idea that [the NFL] hasn’t aggressively investigated this is totally, totally false as evidenced by the fact he’s already spent three days with them,” Hardin said. “They’ve obviously done a bunch of research and done a lot of work themselves and they say need to do some more.”
Hardin is bracing himself for Tuesday night’s episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, during which Soledad O’Brien interviewed several of Watson’s accusers.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I’m not optimistic,” he said. “I believe they’ll air the accusations of the women without attempting to look behind it to see what kind of merit do they have.”
According to HBO’s press release, the accusers, conducting their first-ever national interviews, spoke with O’Brien about the alleged sexual misconduct they say they experienced, as well as Watson’s fully-guaranteed $230 million contract with the Browns.
HBO declined to tell cleveland.com which of the accusers will appear on the show or provide other details. O’Brien, responding to a Twitter post announcing the episode, replied “It’s a very good story. Hope you’ll watch.”
Hardin said such interviews were anticipated as the civil suits play out and understands they won’t help Watson’s case.
“My approach all along was that we were not going to win the battle of public opinion,” Hardin said. “And my goal has always been to have these cases examined by law enforcement and I strongly believed that trained investigators would ultimately conclude that there was nothing to them from a criminal standpoint and that’s where my focus has always been.
“I thought that’s what the NFL teams cared most about and with the exception of Miami, that’s true.”
He said once the criminal element was dismissed, “the ball would move to the NFL, and that’s where we are.”
Hardin said “no settlement talks are in the offing” regarding the civil suits and that Watson and his team are awaiting the NFL’s decision. Watson continues to cooperate in the civil proceedings, and will provide two depositions a day from June 21-23, during the six-week break between Browns mandatory minicamp and training camp.
Hardin said he hopes that 324-game suspension by Major League Baseball of former Indians and current Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer for allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault will not affect the NFL’s discipline of Watson. Bauer, who also has not been criminally charged, denies the allegations and is appealing.
“I’m going to try to be an optimist and say it will have no effect at all,” Hardin said. “Because it has no logical connection.”
Once Friel and Gaffney wrap up their investigation, they’ll turn their findings over to form US District Judge Sue L. Robinson, who will determine whether or not to discipline Watson. Sanctions can include a fixed or indefinite suspension, a fine, or a combination of the two, or banishment from the NFL with an opportunity to reapply. Discipline may also include a probationary period with conditions that must be met for reinstatement or continued participation.
If Watson appeals the decision, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee can overturn or modify the discipline as they see fit, and their ruling will be final. If Watson is suspended for all or part of the 2022 season, backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett will start in his place.
The Browns have arguably the easiest first four games of any NFL team — at Carolina, at home against the Jets and Steelers and at the Falcons — but NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told cleveland.com last week that Watson’s possible suspension had no bearing on the schedule .
After Watson and his teammates return home from the Bahamas, they’ll begin Organized Team Activities next week at team headquarters in Berea, which consists of 10 full-squad practices over the next three weeks. The program concludes with the mandatory minicamp June 14-16, and then veterans are off until training camp begins in late July.
Lawyers for both sides have agreed not to go to trial between Aug. 1 and March 1, meaning Watson can participate in the NFL season depending on his possible suspension.
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