Editors’ note: This story contains accounts of sexual assault. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault and is seeking help, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or at https://www.rainn.org
Deshaun Watson’s lawyer Rusty Hardin provided an update this week on the NFL’s ongoing investigation into the Browns quarterback regarding acts of alleged sexual harassment and assault.
Appearing on the latest episode of the Audacy podcast Payne & Pendergast alongside Leah Graham, a fellow attorney representing the quarterback, Hardin revealed Watson’s meetings with the league’s investigative team have concluded after fielding a question concerning the nature of the proceedings.
“I think now that it’s over, I can say that he subjected himself to four days of questioning by very professional, polite, intense, prepared former sexual assault prosecutors and it’s just like an interview,” he said. “There are no rules. They were free to ask any question, and we didn’t refuse to answer any questions.”
Hardin’s update pertains to the meetings Watson had with NFL investigators in late May regarding the then-22 active civil lawsuits filed against him. That number has since risen to 23 after plaintiff Nia Smith filed a suit earlier this week detailing sexual harassment and assault she says she endured from Watson during three different encounters in 2020.
While Hardin did not confirm whether or not the NFL has ended the investigation, he suggested the QB and his legal team will likely not agree with its results. “I’m fully prepared and have always assumed that we’re probably going to disagree with the conclusion of the NFL,” said Hardin, who was interviewed after the 23rd lawsuit was filed. “On the other hand, I will say, without reservation, they have intentionally investigated.”
Hardin’s remarks come less than two weeks after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell revealed on May 24 that the league’s investigation was nearing its end. Though Goodell declined to confirm a timeline for a decision on possible discipline, The MMQB’s Albert Breer reported a day prior the NFL is expected to decide before the start of the 2022 season.
With Watson now facing 23 active civil suits with a possible 24th on the horizon, the latest allegations shed light more on his tumultuous ongoing legal troubles. On Thursday, it was reported that Smith’s suit includes claims detailing Watson and his team attempted to settle the cases ahead of the initial filings, as well as an accusation Watson offered each plaintiff $100,000, along with an “aggressive nondisclosure agreement.” Neither the Browns nor the NFL have issued a comment on the latest lawsuit.
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As Watson and his team anxiously await word on the NFL’s next steps, the entire Browns organization remains stuck in a state of uncertainty after making the risky decision to acquire the 2017 first rounder in March. Cleveland’s trade officially put an end to long-standing rumors linking Watson to the Dolphins, who were reportedly the primary team interested in trading for the former Texans QB last year.
Hardin confirmed during his interview that Watson and his team had two opportunities to settle a large portion of the civil suits, the second of which came around the time of the 2021 draft when Watson and Miami expressed mutual interest. Hardin said Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was willing to acquire Watson, who was in the midst of a criminal investigation at the time, but required all 22 suits reach a settlement with each plaintiff signing a non-disclosure agreement.
“All of a sudden, Miami comes to the floor and says, ‘Look, we’ll take our chances on what’s going to happen with the criminal,’ because at that time, there was a criminal investigation going on,” he said. “Most teams were not willing to consider trading until and unless they knew what was gonna happen in the criminal investigation and, by that time, it was six months old and there was that uncertainty. Miami was an outlier.”
Watson is currently not facing criminal charges following two separate grand jury hearings earlier this year. On March 11, a Harris County grand jury returned nine “no” decisions on nine criminal complaints against Watson. A Harris County prosecutor said that the decision concluded criminal proceedings against him in that county, and Watson was traded shortly afterward. A grand jury in Brazoria County declined to charge Watson on a 10th count on March 24.
While it remains to be seen what the NFL will decide, Watson’s new contract with Cleveland guards against significant financial penalties that he may face with a possible suspension. Watson has a base salary of only $1 million for the ’22 campaign, and would lose just $55,556 for every potential game missed due to suspension.
The other active civil lawsuits filed by massage therapists detail graphic accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault that occurred during massage therapy sessions. The accounts range from Watson allegedly refusing to cover his genitals to the quarterback “touching [a plaintiff] with his penis and trying to force her to perform oral sex on him.” During his introductory press conference with the Browns, Watson denied assaulting, harassing or disrespecting any woman.
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