CLEVELAND — While there is still plenty unclear about the NFL's appeal of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension, this much we now know: it won't be NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell making the final determination on Watson's punishment.
Rather, according to NBC Sports and ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio, Goodell will appoint a designee outside of the NFL office to hear and rule on the matter.
While it remains unknown who that designee would be, Florio speculated two potential candidates: former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Mary Jo White and former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. White has previously handled NFL investigations, including allegations against Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder and former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, while Rice is a notorious Browns fan, who recently became a part of the ownership group purchasing the Denver Broncos.
Speaking to 3News' Russ Mitchell last month, Rice discussed the situation involving Watson, who has been accused by several women of sexual misconduct, including harassment and assault, during his time with the Houston Texans.
"We all need to keep an open mind and let Judge [Sue L.] Robinson do her work," Rice said. "It was collectively bargained as the process that would be used. It's a serious matter. I'm going to keep an open mind and see where this comes out. I hope it will be resolved soon. I have a lot of confidence in the arbitrator."
As Rice noted, it was former U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson who was jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to oversee Watson's case. But while Robinson initially issued a six-game punishment for the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) gives either side the ability to make an appeal, which is then heard by either Goodell or a designee.
In her 16-page report, Robinson ruled that Watson violated the league's Personal Conduct Policy on the following three counts:
- Conduct that Qualifies as a Sexual Assault
- Conduct that Poses a Genuine Danger to the Safety and Well-Being of Another Person
- Conduct that Undermines, or Puts at Risk, the Integrity of the NFL
Robinson said that she arrived at her ruling of a six-game suspension with no fines based on the precedent set by punishments in previous cases and the structure of the league's CBA. While she stated that she didn't believe that Watson's behavior qualified as "violent," she called his conduct "more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL," in addition to ruling that he could only receive future massages from team-employed massage therapists.
Over the course of the past two years, Watson has been sued by 25 women alleging sexual misconduct, including harassment and assault, during his time with the Houston Texans. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has since settled 23 of his lawsuits, with a 24th having been dropped. His disciplinary hearing with the league, however, only focused on the allegations from four specific accusers.
Earlier this year, two Texas grand juries declined to indict Watson on criminal charges as a result of the accusations. The Clemson product has publicly maintained his innocence throughout the process.
Last month the Texans, reached settlements with 30 women regarding allegations that they enabled the star quarterback's behavior during his time with the team. In a statement, the Texans said they admitted no guilt in making the settlements.
As for what's next, the NFLPA and Watson have until Friday to file a response to the league's appeal. And while the CBA doesn't explicitly state a timeline for such appeals beyond the initial notice, the league's Personal Conduct Policy states that any such appeal shall be "processed on an expedited basis."