NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson has ordered Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson to be suspended without pay for six games, the league confirmed to NPR on Monday.
The punishment comes after 24 women accused Watson of sexual misconduct, sparking civil lawsuits and putting the star quarterback on the sidelines in 2021. Watson settled 20 of the cases against him in June.
The six-game suspension is "the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of non-violent sexual conduct," Robinson said in her decision, adding that "Mr. Watson's pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL."
Robinson found Watson responsible for "multiple violations of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told NPR via email.
Specifically, she said the NFL had proven that Watson engaged in: sexual assault (as the NFL's policies define it); conduct that poses a danger to another person; and conduct that undermines the integrity of the NFL.
The accusations against Watson came from some of the more than 60 massage therapists he worked with in one 15-month period, from late 2019 through the winter of 2021.
Robinson said that in making appointments with massage therapists, Watson "had a sexual purpose — not just a therapeutic purpose."
"I find the evidence sufficient to demonstrate that Mr. Watson knew, or should have known, that any contact between his penis and these therapists was unwanted," Robinson said.
Earlier this year, two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, clearing a path for his eventual return to the playing field.
Watson has the right to appeal the decision within three days, through the NFL Players Association. The league can also file its own appeal.
The NFL says it is "reviewing Judge Robinson's imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps."
Robinson is a former federal judge who began working with the NFL after retiring from the bench in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.
Describing the factors she weighed in deciding Watson's punishment, Robinson acknowledged that he had "an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events," adding that he cooperated in the investigation and paid restitution.
But, she said, Watson — who has categorically denied doing anything inappropriate during the massage sessions — has also not expressed remorse. She also noted that he had not immediately informed the NFL when the first lawsuit was filed in March of 2021.
As for the NFL star's intentions before and during the massage sessions, Robinson wrote, "Mr. Watson had a reckless disregard for the consequences of his conduct, which I find equivalent to intentional conduct."
Watson was playing for the Houston Texans when the allegations against him arose. In March, he signed a five-year deal to become the Browns' quarterback.