NFL appoints adviser to hear Deshaun Watson appeal

The NFL appointed Peter C. Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general, to hear its appeal of the six-game suspension of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for multiple violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, according to a league spokesperson.

Wednesday, the The NFL appealed Watson’s suspension, which was issued by a third-party disciplinary officer after a three-day hearing in June that investigated charges that he engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior during massages. Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association, found that Watson engaged in “predatory” and “egregious” conduct, but suggested she was limited in its power to impose stricter discipline in NFL policies and past decisions.

The union has until Friday to file a response to the league’s appeal, but there is no deadline for Harvey to issue a decision. The league said the appeal would be heard on an “expedited” basis.

Watson has denied the allegations against him. Two Texas grand juries declined to indict him on criminal charges, and he settled 23 of 24 lawsuits brought against him by women who said they assaulted or harassed them on massage dates.

It is the first player conduct hearing to go through a third-party arbitrator, a new process mandated in 2020 by the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union. According to its terms, the arbitrator made an initial decision, which each party could appeal to Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choice. The league still holds immense sway over the final outcome as it has what amounts to a veto.

Before Robinson suspended Watson for six games, the NFL requested at least a one-year suspension. The league is seeking the same sanction in its appeal, and it also recommended a fine and treatment for Watson, according to a person familiar with the brief the NFL submitted Wednesday but is not authorized to speak about it publicly. The NFL also raised concerns about Watson’s lack of remorse, as did Robinson in its report on his decision.

Robinson’s discipline did not include a fine or counseling for Watson, but required as a condition of his reinstatement that he only use team-approved massage therapists, in team-led sessions, for all the length of his career.

Harvey, a partner at Patterson Belknap in New York and a former federal prosecutor, has worked on combating violence against women, including through a Sexual Assault Response Team initiative that he led as Attorney General. He is also a board member of Futures Without Violence, a non-profit organization that seeks policy solutions to end violence against women and children.

Harvey helped the NFL rewrite its personal conduct policy in 2014 and sits on the league’s Diversity Advisory Committee established in March. He was a member of the four-person panel that advised Goodell in 2017 during the NFL’s investigation and subsequent suspension. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliottwho was charged with domestic violence but not criminally charged.

Goodell suspended Elliott for six games after consulting with the advisory committee.

Tony Buzbee, the attorney for Watson’s accusers, held a press conference Thursday afternoon in which he called the NFL’s record on violence against women “dark and sad,” and he urged Goodell to impose a harsher penalty. Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who filed the first lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, read a statement criticizing the NFL’s handling of the charges against Watson. Solis settled his claim against Watson the night before Robinson issued his decision.

“What do the actions of the NFL say to little girls who have suffered at the hands of someone perceived to have power?” Solis said. ‚ÄúThat it doesn’t matter? That they don’t care? She said that was the message she got from the league’s response.

Goodell and the league have been criticized for years because the commissioner handled all aspects of personal conduct policy violations, including gathering facts, imposing penalties and hearing appeals.

The union fought to diminish some of Goodell’s powers in the last contract by having a jointly approved disciplinary officer listen to league and union submissions and issue a penalty. But if the Disciplinary Officer finds that there is a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy, Goodell or his delegate always have the final say on the extent of the discipline.

During its 15-month investigation into the allegations against Watson, the NFL interviewed 49 people, including Watson, 12 of his accusers and other witnesses. Not every woman who sued Watson chose to interview the league.

The union could decide to challenge the results of the appeal in federal court, as it has done with other player conduct decisions in the past. But the courts tend not to interfere with companies and unions that have jointly approved arbitration and appeal processes, as the league and players’ association have.