HOUSTON — When the first woman accused Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during a massage session in a lawsuit filed in March 2021, it was just the initial step in a protracted saga that would eventually encompass 23 more civil filings, a criminal investigation and the possibility of indefinite suspension by the NFL.
After Thursday’s announcement that Watson and the NFL had agreed on an 11-game suspension and a $5 million fine as part of a settlement of his disciplinary case, the only remaining legal issue pending for the Cleveland Browns quarterback is one unsettled lawsuit.
“Now with the exception of one last civil case, he can look at it and say it’s closed the door on this matter, at least the legal proceedings,” said David Ring, a California-based attorney who is not connected to the lawsuits and who has represented victims of sexual assault. “As far as the court of public opinion and how the fans react to him, that’s something he’s still going to be dealing with, I think for a while.”
Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing the 24 women who sued Watson, was upset by the NFL’s settlement.
During a news conference earlier this month, Buzbee called on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “to do the right thing.” After Watson had been suspended six games by a retired federal judge who had been appointed by the league and the players’ union to act as an independent disciplinary officer, the NFL appealed the decision and indicated it would push for an indefinite suspension.
“By settling this matter the way he has, Roger Goodell has proven one of two things: either his recent rhetoric was utter baloney, or his bark is much worse than his bite,” Buzbee said in a statement released Thursday. “The message today to all victims is clear, if you believe you have been sexually assaulted by a powerful person, keep your mouth shut and go away.”
Watson was still with the Houston Texans when the 24 women filed lawsuits alleging he had exposed himself, touched them with his genitals or kissed them against their will during massage appointments. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Watson has long denied any wrongdoing, and was traded to the Browns in March.
“Yeah, I am moving on with my career and my life, and I am continuing to stand by my innocence,” Watson told reporters in Berea, Ohio, after the settlement was announced.
The lawsuits led to criminal investigations, including by Houston police.
In a deposition, Houston police Detective Kamesha Baker, the lead investigator in the criminal probe, had told Buzbee she believed Watson had committed crimes in the 10 criminal complaints that had been filed against the quarterback. But in March, two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson.
Earlier this month, Buzbee announced Watson had settled 23 of the 24 lawsuits against him.
Buzbee previously announced that 30 women who accused the Texans of turning a blind eye to allegations against their former star quarterback had settled their legal claims against the team.
The settlement terms related to the lawsuits against Watson and the Texans were confidential.
“Just because settlements and things like that happen does not mean that a person is guilty for anything,” Watson said.
Buzbee has said he would continue discussing the remaining lawsuit with Watson’s legal team.
“I think these victims look at it like it’s as a mixed bag,” Ring said. “They didn’t get everything they wanted and unfortunately in our system of justice, both criminal and civil, it’s hard to come away with a complete victory.”
Juan A. Lozano reports for The Associated Press.