As the lawsuits mount, do the Browns believe Deshaun Watson?

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A 23rd civil lawsuit was filed against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson alleging sexual misconduct last week. By the time you read this, that number could be 24.

Earlier this month, a pair of the accusers appeared on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel to detail their experiences with Watson. Those stories led to the 23rd woman filing suit.

They are not the only accusations. Sports Illustrated has investigated further accounts of sexual misconduct by Watson towards massage therapists who have chosen not to make their names public for fear of reprisal.

Watson has denied all the accusations. He has made it black and white: He’s telling the truth; the 23 accusers are lying. “I have never assaulted or disrespected or harassed any woman in my life,” Watson said at his introductory press conference following his trade to Cleveland.

Which raises the question: Do the Browns believe Deshaun Watson? It’s something that the team that handed him the richest contract in NFL history has yet to answer.

Related: The Browns’ mock-humility over the Deshaun Watson trade is laughable

The Browns completed an internal investigation prior to trading five draft picks – including three first-rounders – for Watson, who they then gifted with a newly minted, record-breaking $ 250m contract. At Watson’s press conference, Browns’ general manager Andrew Berry said he was “comfortable” with the amount of work the team put into investigating the claims against Watson. He was not asked if he believed the accused or the accusers.

When combining the number of women who have brought civil or criminal complaints against Watson, those who have been independently verified but have not brought forward a legal complaint, and those who withdrew their claim once they learned their names would be made public, the total number of women who have accused Watson of various forms of sexual misconduct runs closer to 30.

Watson repeated that he had never “disrespected” a woman four times at the same press conference – the only time he had spoken publicly in a year.

Do the Cleveland Browns believe Deshaun Watson?

HBO’s Real Sports interview did not bring new information to light. What the HBO show did do, however, was put the emotions of the accusers on screen in a way that text cannot. Two women were forced to re-live moments of embarrassment, shame and fear in public.

Kyla Hayes detailed her massage with Watson. “He wanted me to make a V motion in his pelvic area,” she said. “So, go across his stomach to his thighs, back to his stomach. I just kept massaging and did what he asked until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it. He was moving his penis back and forth as my hands moved as well. ”

Kyle said Watson’s penis allegedly touched her hand intentionally and that he ejaculated. “That was mortifying and embarrassing and disgusting.”

Ashley Solis, another massage therapist, explained how she “got really scared” at the end of her session with Watson. “He just said, ‘I know you have a career to protect.’ And ‘I know you don’t want anyone messing with it just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine,’ ”Solis said. “That sounded like a threat to me.”

The Real Sports segment also emboldened other women to come forward. “In that [HBO] piece, Plaintiff was struck by the courage of the victims willing to step forward and speak, and was extremely displeased by Watson and his legal team’s mistreatment and revictimization of the Plaintiffs, ”the lawsuit filed last week states. “But it was Watson himself claiming that even now he has ‘no regrets’ and has done nothing wrong that solidified her resolve.”

Do the Browns believe Deshaun Watson?

There are, logically, three answers:

• The Browns do believe Watson and believe that more than 20 massage therapists are conspiring to try to bring down the quarterback for some sort of personal gain, financial or otherwise.

• The Browns don’t believe Watson but believe that his behavior does not rise to the most reprehensible of standards. That he has not – or will not in the future – be accused of conduct that will be provable in a court of law.

• The Browns don’t believe Watson and they don’t care – because they’re OK hiding behind the shield of touchdowns and talent and wins and Lombardi’s and parades and yet-to-be-unveiled initiatives and community work and a collective interest in moving on in the what’s-next, social media age.

The Browns actions are telling. They were out of the trade-for-Watson sweepstakes before they returned at the final hour with an unparalleled offer: A five-year, fully guaranteed, $ 230m deal, the first of its kind in NFL history.

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Watson held court over the league. Teams traipsed to an Atlanta hotel to woo him once the Texans had sanctioned a trade, not the reverse. Presentations were made. Roster constructions were discussed. Croissants were eaten. Red carpets were rolled out. Outrageous contracts offered to a player who can help them by owners who can’t help themselves. Four teams genuflected at the altar: The Saints, Panthers, Falcons, and Browns all met with Watson in person. Eleven teams inquired about his availability and the price tag. Their reticence in pursuing a deal was ultimately sporting, not civic.

The Browns were the winners of the spectacle – thanks, largely, to the grubby fine print in their offer. They agreed to artificially suppress Watson’s salary for the forthcoming season to limit the financial hit to Watson in case of a suspension.

Watson’s $ 230m deal paid the quarterback $ 9m at signing. He will be paid $ 55m per year from 2023 to 2026, whether he is suspended by the league or not. His salary for the upcoming season? $ 1m. The deal doubles as a confession from the Cleveland hierarchy that it anticipates some form of suspension this season.

Would they include such a clause – such an incentive – if they believed Watson had never, provably, disrespected a woman?

The NFL’s current investigation into Watson remains open, with no timeline given for when it will be concluded – new accusations could mean a delay in any ruling. This is the way we do it. In an America where the justice system can’t figure out the correct way to prosecute domestic abuse or sexual assault, we ask football to do it better. NFL investigations work independently of the law. They do not use the standards of either criminal or civil law to decide on a case. They use their own standard: Did it breach the amorphous Personal Conduct Policy?

The latest CBA, finalized in March 2020, incorporates a Disciplinary Officer who makes the initial decision as to whether a player will be suspended, and for how long. The Disciplinary Officer is jointly hired and paid by the league and the NFLPA, a key change to the prior protocol that was run completely by the commissioner.

Once the Disciplinary Officer issues a decision, the commissioner, or his designee, continues to have full authority over the appeal. Based on the language of the policy, the commissioner has broad powers when it comes to reviewing, revising, or reversing the Disciplinary Officer’s decision.

Any financial punishment is tied to the length of a suspension. The league does not fine an offender a set amount. Instead, they suspend a player for a certain number of weeks, with the player forfeiting his weekly paycheck as part of the suspension. By bumping Watson’s salary into the future and including suspension-proof language in the contract, the Browns agreed to inoculate the quarterback against any potential financial punishment the league could levy against him.

There are no concrete reports on the NFL’s thinking. Watson served a shadow ban last year: He was not formally suspended; nor was he placed on the “commissioner’s exempt list”. Instead, Watson was asked to stay away from the Texans’ building but still received his full paycheck. Will the league factor that in as time served?

You can read through the tea leaves to see where this is going. As Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated noted, the Browns have been scheduled for only two national TV games next season, despite adding one of the game’s stars at its most impactful (and famous) position and playing in one of the league’s most competitive, nationally relevant divisions. There will be more of the Drew Lock-led Seahawks in primetime this season than the Browns.

It doesn’t take one of the league’s investigative crews to figure out that it’s likely because the schedule makers anticipate Watson will not be available.

A Watson suspension could range from a few weeks to half the season to the full year. It’s plausible the NFL could follow MLB’s path: Baseball recently handed down a 324-game, two-year punishment to Trevor Bauer under the league’s domestic violence policy. It was an unprecedented decision for an American sports league, effectively ending Bauer’s career due to accusations of sexual violence.

The NFL could take a similar stance, especially if they look to punish the Browns for attempting to offset any punishment thanks to the structure of Watson’s contract.

The league and law will reach their conclusions. By committing to a trade and a new contract, the Browns have already publicly admitted they’ve reached their own.

Watson has not dragged the accusations into the murky waters of he-said-she-said, the typical playbook of the rich and powerful. He has not claimed a misunderstanding. His claim is that the allegations are false, no ifs or buts. He says he has “never” disrespected a woman – let alone 30. The Browns have offered platitudes and forceful nothing-isms ahead of a straight answer to the obvious follow-up: Do they believe Deshaun Watson?

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