Why Deshaun Watson Suing the NFL Likely Won’t Work

Last Monday, it was announced that former Texans quarterback (and current Cleveland Brown) Deshaun Watson would be suspended for the first six games of the 2022 season for committing sexual assault in a massage setting with multiple women, as determined by former judge and current NFL arbitrator Sue L. Robinson.

Prior to the announcement of the suspension length, the NFL Players Association, the union to which Deshaun Watson belongs, implored the league not to appeal the length of the suspension:

In other words, “Hey, we are going to be fine with whatever the punishment is, so owners, fans, and Roger Goodell, you all should be, too!” Needless to say, it didn’t work. On Wednesday the NFL appealed Robinson’s decision, and the belief now is that Goodell and his investigative team are going to significantly augment Watson’s punishment, possibly all the way up to a full season suspension for 2022.

The appeal will be heard by former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, a decorated lawyer and former prosecutor. Nobody knows what Harvey will do, but he was hand picked by Goodell, so that makes predicting the outcome a little easier. Watson is likely to get the book thrown at him.

On Friday, the NFLPA filed their response to the appeal, and Harvey is expected to announce his decision on what changes, if any, he makes to Watson’s suspension in the very near future. If the suspension is increased significantly, the NFLPA has already said they will sue the league in federal court, on Watson’s behalf.

In the past, there have been players who have sued the league over player conduct punishments, and it’s allowed them to, at the very least, get on the field and play while the courts sort things out. Former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in 2015, was able to play while suing the league over his four game suspension for Deflate-Gate. He eventually served his sentence in 2016 after losing in court. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott sued the league in 2017 over a six game suspension for domestic assault, and he was able to get on the field at the start of the 2017 season. Eventually, he lost his court case, and accepted his punishment at the back end of the 2017 campaign.

Because Brady and Elliott were able to secure injunctions, and get on the field when they had been suspended by the NFL, and at the very least kick the suspension can down the road for a period of time, people have assumed the same thing could happen with Deshaun Watson. However, legal experts have pointed out that it will be far more difficult for Watson to get an injunction from the courts that will allow him to play to start the season in 2022.

In a nutshell, here are the main reasons that Watson, unlike Brady and Elliott, will likely have to take his medicine and serve his time, even if he does sue the league in federal court:

Watson has already accepted a six game suspension without appeal
Unlike Brady and Elliott, who were contesting that they should even be suspended at all, Watson has already said (via the statement above from the NFLPA) that he is accepting the six game suspension, so his actions show acceptance of punishment of some sort. Also, in order to get an injunction that would table the suspension while the court processed this case, Watson would have to show he is being done irreparable harm by a longer suspension, which is virtually impossible to do when you’ve already accepted a suspension of some sort. In other words, the difference between reparable harm and irreparable harm is not an extra 11 games on an NFL suspension. In fact, pushing a year long suspension into 2023 would actually cause Watson MORE financial harm, because his contract in 2022 is set up to make his lost game checks for a suspension tiny, compared to future seasons.

The NFL and NFLPA agreed in the CBA to this method of handing down punishment
Prior to the new collective bargaining agreement in 2020, Roger Goodell was judge, jury, and executioner in any and all player conduct issues. Part of Brady’s and Elliott’s arguments were that the process of determining punishment — essentially, a one man dictatorship — was unfair. In order to give the process more balance, the owners and players agreed to add Robinson as the recommender of punishment, with both sides being given the right to appeal any discipline handed down. That’s exactly what’s happening. There is nothing outside of the agreed to format occurring here. Thus, the courts, who love when parties can decide things on their own via arbitration, will probably not look favorably on the NFLPA clogging the court system and saying that the process the NFLPA agreed to in the CBA is unfair.

To get an injunction, the precedent needs to show that Watson will likely win his lawsuit
As outlined above, there are plenty of reasons why Watson’s case would likely fall apart in court, and his case is actually a much weaker one than the ones brought forth by Brady and Elliott, who both lost in court. Therefore, precedent is stacked heavily against Watson here.

I still think you can make a good argument for a 12 game suspension and a fine of around $10 million being an appropriate punishment for Watson, and stay somewhat within precedent from previous NFL player conduct punishments. Robinson said the stiffest punishment she had seen from the NFL for non-violent sexual offenses was a three-game suspension. If they give Watson three games for each of the four cases presented to Robinson (again, the NFL only brought forth four of the 24 civil cases in their hearings), and a $10 million fine for the $10 million he received to do absolutely zilch for the Texans last year, that has some logic tied to it.

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