Will Deshaun Watson Face An NFL Suspension?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When reached on the evening that a Grand Jury decided not to indict Texans Quarterback Deshaun Watson on nine criminal complaints, his attorney Rusty Hardin said several NFL teams are interested in Watson. His reps are reportedly speaking with those teams.

While it looks like the criminal proceedings in Harris County are wrapped up, it’s still unclear whether the NFL will try to suspend the Quarterback. As we have seen in the past, the League has not been shy about conducting its own investigations, with its own investigators, reaching its own conclusions and meting out punishment.

In fact, it has suspended numerous former players who never faced criminal charges, including Ezekiel Elliott and Ben Roethlisberger. There are a few possibilities. One is that the NFL decide not to suspend Watson based on its investigation. Another possibility is that it does suspend him. Suspensions for allegations of sexual misconduct fall at a six-game minimum. That’s usually when there is one accusation and here there are 22 civil complaints. So, the suspension could be significant, if in fact it occurs.

In the past, the League has faced pushback for concluding fault in criminal accusations during its arbitration process. Most notably, Ezekiel Elliott sued the League alleging fundamental unfairness in the process after the league punished him for allegedly committing domestic violence on an ex. Elliott was never charged or convicted with such a crime, only accused. There were pictures provided to the NFL of bruises by his accuser but no direct evidence proving he inflicted the injuries.

Players facing criminal accusations are adjudged by the League or its arbitrators without being able to put on a full defense or have all of the procedural protections available in a criminal justice system that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

While the League has won every time a player has challenged a disciplinary suspension, and Courts generally respect the arbitrator’s decision, the League may still be hesitant to fully conclude that Watson did any of the acts he is accused of.

However, the League could always determine that Watson engaged in the broader transgression of conduct detrimental to the League, rather than blatantly adjudging whether he committed sexual misconduct.

With the sheer number of accusers, the League could feel pressure to suspend Watson, whether or not the evidence is direct or even convincing. However, the fact that a Grand Jury decided not to indict Watson does count for something. Indictments on cases where there are witnesses testifying and police work for almost a year, are generally easy to come by as long as there is some compelling evidence. Today’s decision indicates that the evidence against Watson may be very weak. If so, and if the NFL does not uncover anything extra that the police couldn’t get its hands on, then the NFL may decide not to discipline Watson altogether.

In he said/she said situations, it is very hard to draw the inference that Watson or anyone else committed sexual misconduct, assault or harassment, if there is no direct evidence such as a video or audio. Watson’s attorneys have surely submitted the same information to the NFL that they gave to prosecutors to try to contradict the accuser’s stories and prove that Watson is innocent. If the NFL finds inconsistencies in his accuser’s stories, it will be very hard for the League to jump to any conclusions about what happened in the massage rooms. On the other hand, if his accusers (one or more) are believable to the NFL and can provide any proof, the League could suspend him absent direct evidence. It really could go either way.

The NFL has interviewed several of Watson’s accusers already but has also been hindered in its investigation, taking a back seat to ensure that it did not interfere with the criminal investigation. Now that the criminal side appears to be off the table, the NFL can finish its investigation and Watson could be back on the field by the start of next season.

Absent formal charges or an indictment, it is unlikely Watson would be put on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. If the NFL investigation spans months or another year, which is possible given the number of accusers, then Watson could play all of next season and face no suspension. It will all depend on when the investigation concludes and what the NFL finds out.

What about Watson’s remaining legal matters?

Watson’s attorney said he does not know what happened with the 10th police complaint filed against Watson because it appears the Harris County Grand Jury voted not to bring charges on nine of the ten complaints. The New York Times reported that the Prosecutors decided not to present the tenth complaint, indicating the evidence may not have been strong enough to present it to the Grand Jury. The Times also reported that while Grand Jurors reportedly watched portions of videotaped interviews with women who filed police complaints against Watson, only one of those women was called in to testify.

On the federal side of things, Watson’s attorney is also not concerned about rumors of an FBI investigation. Rusty Hardin and the plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee both confirmed they had been contacted by the feds but disagreed over the nature of the alleged investigation, with Hardin saying it focused on an extortion attempt on Watson and Buzbee saying it was focused on Watson. The FBI will neither confirm nor deny the existence of any such investigation and Hardin says it is nothing with nothing and he believes it won’t affect Watson.

On the civil side, the 22 cases will continue on. Watson, who has testified under Oath for just a few hours of depositions can now stop pleading the Fifth, since his criminal investigation is over. Hardin says Watson will start answering questions in his civil depositions, which is expected to span at least another 40 hours of questioning. As of now, it appears those cases will continue on and could even go to trial and be tried separately. That process could take months or years, absent a settlement by the parties.

Now that Watson has the criminal allegations behind him, trade talk are heating up. LOJ Founder Amy Dash, Fox Sports Radio Host Jason Smith and Former Broncos Player & Denver Fan Host Nick Ferguson weigh in on where Watson is most likely to land. Plus they discuss whether he will now try to settle his civil cases and how an NFL suspension could impact his future. Watch below and Subscribe to LOJ’s YouTube Channel.