When two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict Deshaun Watson on criminal complaints stemming from allegations of sexual assault or harassment by 24 women, it didn’t clear the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback from facing consequences from the NFL.
Watson and the Cleveland Browns found out the severity of his punishment on Monday, when he was suspended six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson made the decision after the NFL pushed for an indefinite suspension of at least one year and Watson’s legal team argued for no punishment during a three-day hearing that concluded June 30.
A player does not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to be disciplined for conduct detrimental to the league, per the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association.
“Normally arbitration is reserved for civil matters in workplaces, which is what makes the NFL’s investigation of criminal allegations wholly unique and, in my opinion, potentially unfair,” said attorney Amy Dash, founder of League of Justice, a website that reports on sports and the law.
Dash also noted that sometimes players are being investigated for criminal allegations in the arbitration process and they “don’t have the same protections a defendant in the criminal courts would have such as presumption of innocence, a burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the same rules of evidence and discovery, etc.” But the league negotiated its disciplinary process with the union so it has the power, as an employer, to impose punishment.
The league and union agreed in the 2020 CBA that a disciplinary officer would determine whether a player violated the personal conduct policy and whether to impose discipline.
Fallout from its decision in the Ray Rice case in 2014 — when the league increased its suspension only after video of the former Ravens running back hitting his fiancee emerged — led the NFL to vow it would levy harsher penalties in cases involving violence and sexual assault against women.
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