About 10 of the more than two dozen women who have accused Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson are expected to attend his game in Houston on Sunday, according to their attorneys.
Watson returned to the court to a mixture of boos and cheers Sunday for his first NFL regular season game in two years to play against his former team, the Houston Texans, after serving 11 games without pay following allegations of sexual misconduct.
“They thought it was important to make it clear that they were still here and that they mattered. I was so proud of them for that,” Tony Buzby, an attorney representing the defendants who attended the game, told CNN in a statement. Many years ago. But, as they are going, I will go, too.”
Prior to his suspension, 24 civil lawsuits were filed on behalf of women who alleged Watson sexually harassed or assaulted them during private massage appointments during his time with the Houston Texans. Watson denied any wrongdoing in those cases, and 23 of the lawsuits were settled confidentially. A grand jury declined to indict Watson with criminal charges.
Less than two months after the lawsuits were settled, another woman filed a new civil suit in October, alleging that Watson pressured her into sexual activity during a professional massage session. Despite the new lawsuit, the NFL said his status would remain “unchanged.”
Watson has repeatedly denied the allegations against him and said he has no remorse for his actions. He spoke to the media for the first time Thursday since returning from suspension, refusing to answer any non-football questions.
“I understand you guys have a lot of questions, but with my legal team and my medical team, there are only football questions I can really tackle at this time,” Watson told reporters, adding that he was “excited” to be back. With his team and thanked those who stood by him.
“I also want to thank the Browns organization, the ownership, my teammates in the locker room, and all members of the coaching staff for all the support they have given me, especially during my time away,” he said.
Watson violated the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy in private meetings with massage therapists while on the Houston Texans, according to the preliminary ruling issued by Sue L. Watson’s penalty.
In her ruling, Robinson said Watson’s “pattern of behavior is more outrageous than any previously reviewed by the NFL,” adding that Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” was a factor in her chosen discipline.
When Watson plays at Houston’s NRG Stadium against his former team on Sunday, the women he allegedly harassed and sexually assaulted will be among those watching from the sidelines.
“I think it’s important to note that each of these women is different. You can’t paint them with a broad brush. I would never encourage any of them to come,” Buzby said. “Some never want to hear Watson’s name again. Others put it in the past. Some are still angry. Others are defiant. It makes me proud that they want to stand and be counted rather than quietly walk away.”
The NFL and Cleveland Browns did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the defendants’ attendance.
Although he denied the allegations, Watson, who started a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in August, said he was “really sorry to all the women who affected this situation” during a pregame interview. Brown shared it on Twitter
“My decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position, I would definitely like to go back, but I want to keep moving forward and growing and learning and showing that I am a real person and I will,” Watson said.
Women’s movement organizations and nonprofits dedicated to protecting victims of sexual assault and harassment applauded the defendants for attending the game.
“I’m proud of them for being strong enough to try to regain some strength. Even today when survivors hear stories like this, they stir it up,” Donisha Green, spokeswoman for local advocacy group the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (RCC), told CNN. Match, the defendants say they are not willing to suffer in silence. What that says to other survivors is that you don’t have to suffer in silence either.”
Christiane Nunes, president of the National Grassroots Organization for Women (NOW), echoed Greene’s sentiments.
“What often happens is people try to shame, victimize, silence, erase victims and survivors of violence and abuse,” Nunes told CNN. “For them to show up and say no, you’re not going to erase me, that’s so powerful. I give them so much respect and admiration for standing up against him, letting him know anything, including money, he can or will silence them.”
Despite Cleveland’s love of the NFL team, Green says many in the local community have increased their support for advocacy organizations like Cleveland RCC that support sexual assault and rape survivors, promote healing and prevention, and increase education.
“It’s a tough place to be in. We’re a huge football city, and the people here have been Cleveland Browns fans their whole lives,” Green said. “It’s a big deal to try to step over that fence between your fandom and admit that you’re not comfortable with the Deshaun Watson story.”
Even with dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct, the Browns traded three first-round draft picks to the Texans for Watson, then signed him to a 5-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract, the most guaranteed amount in NFL history.
“It’s just like ‘IUD for you,’” Ashley Solis, one of Watson’s accusers, told HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” after news of his signing. We don’t care. He can run and throw, and that’s what we care about.”
The decision outraged and inspired many to get involved, Green said, adding that the Cleveland RCC board of directors has received more than $120,000 in donations specifically related to Watson.
She added, “For those who are struggling to speak up for the victims but also cheer for the Browns and find a mediator can participate in our work and our mission.” “Our place is with the survivors. We believe you, we hear you, we see you. Your stories and experiences matter.”
While the league has faced scrutiny in the past for its handling of sexual misconduct accusations, this was the NFL’s harshest punishment for someone accused of sexual assault.
The NFL initially requested a suspension covering his 17-game regular season and the playoffs, but Robinson ruled on August 1 that Watson would receive a six-game suspension.
In her ruling, Robinson said that no player accused of nonviolent sexual assault, like Watson, had ever received a suspension longer than three games, and that the most common discipline for domestic or gender violence and sexual acts was a six-game ban.
Unlike in the past, the NFL pressed for more – to appeal the decision and seek a full-season suspension. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Watson’s behavior “outrageous” and “predatory”.
When asked why the league was still seeking a harsher punishment for Watson, Goodell said, “Because we’ve seen the evidence. (Robinson) was very clear about the evidence, corroborated the evidence that there were multiple violations here and it was egregious and it was predatory behaviour.”
Later that month, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to Watson’s 11-game regular-season suspension and $5 million fine, plus an additional $1 million each from the league and the Browns to go toward nonprofits working to prevent sexual assault and support survivors and Educating young people about healthy relationships.
“As an organization and as individuals, we have great sympathy for the women involved and our opportunity to make a difference in this community,” Susan “D” Hassan, co-owner of the Browns, said in August.
Watson also underwent a “professional assessment by behavior experts” and followed a “treatment program,” according to the agreement.
Women’s groups argue that none of this is enough.
The NFL has issued longer suspensions for violations, including drug use and gambling — and under his latest contract with the Browns, the suspension won’t cost much of his guaranteed money, according to ESPN.
“His sentence is not enough,” Nunes said, arguing that Watson should be banned entirely from the league. “Even though they’re doing all this performative work, they’re basically saying they’re going to choose profit over actually protecting women and survivors.”
“People deserve a second chance,” said Jamie Hassan, Dee Hassan’s husband and co-owner of the Browns.
“Shouldn’t he be playing again? Isn’t he ever supposed to be part of society? Isn’t he going to get a chance to rehabilitate himself? And that’s what we’re going to do,” referring to Watson. “It doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with the people affected and we will continue to do so. We think Deshaun Watson deserves a second chance.”
Nunes said the team’s “refusal to prioritize the protection of women sends a sickening message” to survivors of sexual assault.
“The fact that Watson can continue to operate, without real accountability, is outrageous,” she said. “The NFL needs to stop harboring sexual assaulters and predators.”