HOUSTON — A lawyer representing two dozen women who have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual assault or harassment said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has a chance to “do the right thing” now that the league has appealed a six-game suspension for the Cleveland Browns quarterback.
“Every victim of sexual assault is watching Roger Goodell and the NFL right now. … Mr. Goodell, what will you do? It’s never too late to do the right thing,” attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who sued Watson over their allegations, said Thursday. “That’s what these women and those watching are expecting.”
The NFL has sought to keep Watson off the field in 2022 and appealed an independent disciplinary officer’s decision that fell short of the league’s recommended penalty.
The appeal gives Goodell or someone he designates the authority to increase Watson’s penalty. On Thursday, Goodell named former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey as his designee to hear the appeal. Buzbee spoke before the league made the announcement.
Afterward, he told CBS: “I’ve said and will say: Bravo to the NFL. It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
The NFL is seeking an indefinite suspension of at least one year plus a significant fine in appealing the suspension, a person familiar with the filing told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter isn’t public knowledge, also said Watson would be required to undergo evaluation and treatment as determined by medical experts before he could be reinstated.
Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson issued her ruling Monday. She concluded Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy after being accused by the women of sexual misconduct during massage treatments while he played for Houston.
Watson, who was with the Texans for four seasons before sitting out last season and then being traded to Cleveland in March, recently settled 23 of 24 lawsuits filed by the women. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal complaints brought by 10 of the women.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing. He has continued to practice with the Browns while awaiting resolution of his case.
Ashley Solis, the first woman to file a lawsuit against Watson, sat next to Buzbee as he discussed the case before taking the podium to share her thoughts on the suspension.
Solis inhaled deeply and took several seconds to compose herself before recounting the abuse she said she has received since coming forward, including death threats and online harassment that led her into a deep depression.
“What do the actions of the NFL say to little girls who have suffered at the hands of someone perceived to have power?” she said. “That it’s not a big deal. That they don’t care.”
Per the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, Watson’s disciplinary case had to go before a jointly appointed disciplinary officer. This was Robinson’s first case since the new CBA was signed in 2020.
Buzbee said he reached out to many of the other women following news of the suspension and he shared some of their reactions Thursday.
“I’m disgusted and heartbroken,” he said one of the women told him. “It’s like we don’t even matter. I feel like we’re invisible.”
Buzbee criticized the NFL’s handling of the investigation and said he questioned why one of the first questions asked to his 10 clients who were interviewed by the NFL was: “What were you wearing?”
“We never expected much from the NFL’s investigation. We never expected much from their flawed process,” Buzbee said. “Even when you know you’re going to be slapped in the face, that slap still hurts and it still stings.”
The person familiar with the filing told the AP that the league attempted to interview all of the women but Buzbee stopped returning messages from the NFL’s investigators.
The league’s investigation, which resulted in a 215-page report, was conducted by two former prosecutors with decades of experience investigating sexual assault cases. The investigators interviewed 49 people, including 12 of 24 plaintiffs, Watson, and third-party witnesses, including witnesses identified by Watson’s attorneys. Investigators also reviewed documentary evidence, including documents provided by Watson’s counsel from civil litigation.
Robinson said in her decision: “My credibility determinations are based largely on the credibility of the NFL investigators.”
Solis said she doesn’t regret speaking out. She said she has been helped by letters and emails from strangers expressing support for her and that she’ll continue to tell her story to make sure young women know they have a voice.
“If anyone has ever tried to abuse their status and overpower you, remind them that they picked the wrong one to try that with,” she said. “That’s exactly what I am — the wrong one. And I’ll keep showing my face and keep speaking up for as long as I can.”
Kristie Rieken is an AP Sports Writer.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this story.