The league challenged the punishment, handed down Monday by a third-party disciplinary official after hearing allegations that Watson sexually assaulted and abused two dozen women he hired to massage. The NFL is arguing for an indefinite suspension with the possibility of reinstatement after a year, said a person with knowledge of the league’s appeal, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The league also recommended a fine and treatment for Watson, citing concerns about his lack of remorse in a statement Wednesday, the person said.
The union, which declined to comment, has until close of business on Friday to respond.
Following the process agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association, the appeal will be heard by Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee. The league did not immediately say who would oversee the appeal, which will be handled “as a matter of urgency.”
The CBA does not specify a time limit within which a decision must be made.
Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge appointed jointly by the NFL and the players’ union to oversee the disciplinary hearing, found that Watson had violated the league’s personal conduct policy engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person, and harming the integrity of the NFL. In her 16-page report, she suggested that Watson’s behavior, which she called “predatory” and “insolent,” may have merited a harsher punishment, but was limited by league policy and past discipline.
Watson has denied the charges against him, and two Texas grand juries have declined to indict him. He settled all but one of the 24 lawsuits brought against him by women he hired to massage him. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said they will “continue to support” the quarterback who won the award. five-year 230 million March.
Robinson said in a statement that Watson’s denials did not appear credible and that he was unrepentant.
The players’ union said before Robinson’s decision that it would not appeal, but after the suspension was announced Monday, the NFL said it would review its findings and “make a decision on the next course of action” within the three business days the CBA allows for appeals.
The six-game suspension was criticized by Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing most of Watson’s accusers, as well as sports law experts and advocates for sexual assault victims. The league argued to Robinson that Watson deserved at least a year’s suspension, and the union fought for a lesser punishment.
Robinson said her decision to suspend Watson for six games was based on penalties the league had handed down in other cases involving gender-based violence.
The league opened an investigation into Watson in 2021. in March when Ashley Solis, a licensed massage therapist in Houston, filed the first lawsuit against him. The women said he assaulted or harassed them during massages in 2020 and 2021 when Watson played for the Houston Texans. In a brief to Robinson, the league wrote that Watson “used his status as an NFL player as an excuse to pre-plan his predatory behavior toward several women.”
The Watson case was the first to be heard under the new 2020 the process established by the CBA. After appointing an arbitrator to oversee the review of the facts and decide the original penalty, the review was intended to quell criticism of Goodell’s excessive and sometimes capricious power in the disciplinary process.
If Robinson had determined that Watson did not violate the personal conduct policy, there would have been no discipline and no appeal by either side. But she concluded there was enough evidence, including accounts from four women she said were “substantially corroborated,” to support multiple policy violations by Watson.
According to the CBA, decisions by Goodell or his designee are “full, final and complete” and binding on all parties, including the player.
The union could challenge the league’s appeal in federal court, as it has done with player conduct decisions in the past. One notable instance was in 2015 when quarterback Tom Brady challenged his four-game suspension in what was called a game. The Deflategate Scandal. A district court judge sided with Brady, saying Goodell exceeded his authority by suspending the quarterback for his role in an alleged scheme to remove air from game balls to improve their grip. However, Goodell’s decision in 2016 upheld by a federal appeals court panel that upheld his broad powers to discipline players.
Michael LeRoy, an arbitrator who teaches labor law at the University of Illinois, said the language of the CBA “underscored” the finality of the process agreed upon by both sides.
“I think it’s pretty much airtight from judicial overturning,” LeRoy said. “Courts look very respectfully at the establishment of factual circumstances and conclusions regarding the breach of contract or not. So I guess Watson is just going to be at windmills if he challenges this in federal court.
Watson may continue to work out with the Browns during training camp as the appeal continues.