The NFL has appointed Peter C. Harvey, the former New Jersey attorney general, to hear his appeal regarding the suspension of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for multiple violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, according to a league spokesperson.
On Wednesday, the NFL appealed Watson’s suspension, which was issued by a third-party disciplinary officer after a three-day hearing in June that investigated accusations that he engaged in coercive, sexual and penetrative behavior during a massage. Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge appointed jointly by the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association, found Watson engaged in “predatory” and “egregious” behavior but noted that she was limited in her power to enforce stricter discipline by NFL policies. American football and its previous provisions.
The union has until Friday to file a response to the association’s appeal, but there is no deadline for Harvey to issue a ruling. The association said the appeal would be heard on an “urgent” basis.
Watson denied the allegations against him. Two grand jurors in Texas refused to indict him on criminal charges, and he settled 23 of 24 lawsuits brought against him by women who said he assaulted or harassed them during massage appointments.
This is the first player conduct hearing conducted by a third-party arbitrator, a new process set in 2020 under the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union. On his terms, the arbitrator issued a preliminary award, which either side can appeal to Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing. The league still has tremendous influence over the bottom line because it has what amounts to a veto.
Before Robinson Watson suspended for six games, the NFL requested a suspension of at least a full year. The league is seeking the same punishment on its appeal, and has also recommended a fine and treatment for Watson, according to a person familiar with the summary provided by the NFL on Wednesday but who is not authorized to speak publicly about it. The NFL also noted concerns about Watson’s lack of remorse, as did Robinson in its report on her decision.
Robinson’s discipline did not include a fine or counseling for Watson, but he required as a condition of his reinstatement that he use only team-certified massage therapists, in team-managed sessions, for the duration of his career.
Harvey, a partner at Patterson Belknap in New York and a former federal prosecutor, has worked to address violence against women, including through the 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 political solutions to end violence against women and children.
Harvey helped the NFL rewrite its personal behavior policy in 2014 and is a member of the league’s Diversity Advisory Committee that was set up in March. He was a member of the four-person panel that advised Goodell in 2017 during the NFL investigation and subsequent suspension. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliottwho was charged with domestic violence but not charged with a criminal offense.
Goodell Elliott was suspended for six matches after consulting with the advisory committee.
Tony Busby, the attorney for Watson’s accusers, held a news conference Thursday afternoon in which he called the NFL’s record of violence against women “superficial and sad,” and urged Goodell to issue a harsher sentence. Ashley Solis, the licensed massage therapist who first filed a lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, read a statement criticizing the NFL’s handling of the charges against Watson. Solis settled her claim against Watson the night before Robinson announced her decision.
“What do the NFL’s actions say to young girls who have suffered at the hands of someone believed to have power?” Solis said. “This isn’t a big deal? They don’t care?” This is the message she took from the league’s response, she said.
Goodell and the league have been criticized for years because the commissioner handled all aspects of personal conduct policy violations, including gathering facts, issuing penalties and hearing appeals.
The union fought to reduce some of Goodell’s powers in the last CBA by having a jointly approved discipline officer listen to presentations from the league and union and impose a penalty. But if a discipline officer finds there has been a violation of the personal conduct policy, Goodell or his designee still has the final say in the extent of discipline.
During the 15-month investigation into the allegations against Watson, the association interviewed 49 people, including Watson, 12 of his accusers, and other witnesses. Not all of the women who filed lawsuits against Watson chose to interview with the league.
The union can decide to challenge the outcome 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 agreed to arbitration and appeal procedures, as the league and players’ union have done.