CLEVELAND, Ohio — Two of Deshaun Watson’s accusers got emotional during interviews Tuesday night with Soledad O’Brien on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and one stated it’s patently false that he did nothing wrong during his massage appointments.
Watson, 26, declined HBO’s request to be interviewed for the piece because of his pending NFL investigation, but one of his lawyers, Leah Graham, steadfastly maintained his innocence to O’Brien, asking “what evidence is there of any guilt?’’
The interviews aired on the same day that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell revealed during the closing press conference at a league meeting in Atlanta that the NFL is close to wrapping up its review of the allegations against Watson and turning the matter over to independent discipline officer Sue L. Robinson, the former U.S. District Judge, to decide whether or not to fine or suspend him or both under terms of the Personal Conduct Policy.
“I can’t give you a timeline,’’ Goodell told reporters in a press conference. “I think we’re nearing the end of the investigative period and then at some point this will be handled by our disciplinary officer. And that will happen shortly. And then we’ll see where that comes out.’’
The two accusers interviewed by O’Brien, Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes, are obviously hoping the NFL brings down the hammer on Watson. They’re among the 22 massage therapists — all represented by attorney Tony Buzbee — who have filed civil suits against Watson for sexual misconduct during appointments, and feel they’re not being heard or believed.
But Watson’s lawyers feel the same way about him throughout this process.
In fact, Watson’s lead counsel Rusty Hardin told cleveland.com on Friday that his client was doomed in the court of public opinion from the start because sexual misconduct is such a hot-button social issue and no one gave him a chance.
Hardin also told 92.3 The Fan during Tuesday that in such situations “the presumption of innocence goes out the window, and the allegation is treated as the truth of the matter. And that’s been the box Deshaun’s been in from the very beginning. The guy they described is not the guy we know. And yet, he hasn’t been given the benefit of the doubt and he should.’’
But Solis and Hayes, both coming to tears during their interviews, painted a compelling picture for O’Brien, as Hardin knew they would.
“He ends up exposing himself (during the massage) and I hurried up and covered him with the towel and he said, ‘Oh you don’t have to worry about the towel,’” Solis told O’Brien. “I said, ‘Yes I do.’ He requested that I work on his abdomen. But the moment I went above his navel, he told me didn’t want me to work there. He told me he wanted me to work lower. He just kept directing me to go lower and, ‘don’t be scared, you can go in there.’
Solis, the first therapist to file a suit, explained that “I just started really freezing up at this point. A wave just took over my body. I felt so hot. I was sweating. It was getting more and more clear that this was not what I signed up for, this is not what I thought the session was going to be.
“As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand and I pulled my hand away instantly and I started crying and I told him that I’m done,’’ Solis said. “I don’t want to do this anymore.’’
Solis said that after she told Watson she was done with the session, she felt intimidated.
“He 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,’” she said. “To me, that’s when that’s when I got really scared…because that sounded like a threat to me.’’
Solis was upset by Watson’s legal team’s insistence that any sexual contact during appointments was consensual. In depositions, Watson has admitted to having sex with three of the plaintiffs, but that it was consensual.
“I’m not a sex worker,’’ Solis said. “I am a massage therapist. For them to say that anything was consensual, either they don’t realize or they don’t care about the danger that puts me in. Because that gives the message to people that massage therapists do those kind of things.”
Solis also believes that Watson’s celebrated blockbuster trade to the Browns has emboldened him.
“Everybody who’s so comfortable with working with him in the future is also comfortable with what he’s done and what he potentially will do,’’ she said.
As the lawsuits rolled in, Solis said she felt “sad that anybody had to to feel the way that I did when I was in the room because it’s so scary.’’
As for why two separate grand juries in Texas failed to indict Watson on criminal charges, Solis said “I have absolutely no idea. I don’t see how any of those human beings could have sat there in front of me and think what he did was okay.
Hayes cried during the interview when O’Brien played a clip of Watson denying any wrongdoing during his introductory Browns’ press conference in March, during which he stated that he never disrespected or assaulted a woman.
“It’s a lot,’’ she said. “It’s kind of a constant reminder of what happened. And for him to say he’s never did anything to a woman, it’s a bold-faced lie.”
Hayes defended remaining in contact with Watson after the alleged misconduct.
“I wasn’t sure what he was capable of,’’ she said. “He could have physically assaulted me. He could have bashed my business. So I had to protect myself and my business. That’s the way I saw fit. Did I ever see him again after that? No. Did I give him the runaround? Yes.”
Hayes explained that Watson “wanted me to kinda make a V motion in his pelvic area. 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.’’
She said he intentionally caused his penis to touch her hands.
“At some point, he did ejaculate,” Hayes said. “That was mortifying and embarrassing and disgusting.”
Both women and Buzbee, who were dismayed that Watson received an NFL-record, fully guaranteed $230 million contract by the Browns after they acquired him in a trade with the Texans. The Browns, who beat out four teams for Watson, gave up six draft picks, including three first-rounders, for him and a sixth-rounder.
“It’s just like a big ‘screw you,’” Solis said. “That’s what it feels like. That we don’t care. He can run and throw, and that’s what we care about.’’
Hayes said, “It was sick to me. I felt like he’s being rewarded for bad behavior.’’
Buzbee said, “I don’t think the team cares about what Deshaun Watson may have done in a massage session. And based on my personal experience with the NFL, I don’t think they care either.’’
O’Brien asked Graham, who spent about eight minutes on a video call with O’Brien on Monday morning after Watson’s team initially declined to be interviewed, why the public would believe one man vs. 22 women.
“It’s 22 women,’’ Graham said. “It’s one lawyer. There’s only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.’’
O’Brien asked Graham about Watson having sex with three of the massage therapists when he said he was seeking nothing other than professional services.
“Well, in every massage, I will tell you he did go, intending just for a professional massage, and only those three instances where sexual conduct occurred — consensual sexual activity — it occurred after the massage session had ended,” Graham said. “And Mr. Watson has testified and is insistent that that sexual activity was initiated by the plaintiff in every single instance.’’
O’Brien asked Graham if Watson still has no regrets.
“As he testified in his depositions last week, yes, he has no regrets because he did nothing wrong,’’ Graham said. “He did nothing wrong in these massages. And although — to your first question, “How can he be innocent?” I think the real question is, ‘What evidence is there of any guilt?’ “
Hardin, who made the media rounds in advance of the HBO piece, released a video shortly beforehand.
“Nobody really wanted to deal much with the fact that two different grand juries found there were no criminal events,’’ he said. “The grand jury decides probable cause, is there any basis for believing there was a crime committed, whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor. And both of those grand juries found no probable cause to believe any crime at all was committed.
“That should have been given great sway because originally there were allegations he used force against these women. Turns out only three of the 22 lawsuits involve any allegation of force and then when subjected to investigation by law enforcement, and presentation to a grand jury, it was found no force was used. There was no indication of a crime involving any type of force.
“As we’ve said, as Deshaun has insisted under oath, each of those three occasions were consensual and instituted by the women. But in the other … 19 cases there was no sexual activity. And Deshaun has already given nine depositions – 11 now – and sworn under oath that there was no sexual activity except those three incidents, and they were consensual.’’
Hardin told Cleveland.com on Friday that they won’t revisit the notion of settling the civil suits until the NFL decides on his discipline.
Meanwhile, Watson is participating fully in Browns Organized Team Activities, which are underway at team headquarters in Berea.
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