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An Arbitrator Left Deshaun Watson’s Fate to the N.F.L. Commissioner

She called his conduct predatory and egregious, and said he expressed no remorse. Yet when it came to penalizing Deshaun Watson, the Cleveland Browns quarterback accused in lawsuits of sexual misconduct and harassment by two dozen women, Sue L. Robinson, the disciplinary officer hired by the N.F.L. and the players union, suspended him for just six games.

The mismatch between the established facts of the case and a penalty that many perceived as too light has football fans and observers of the country’s most popular sport wondering whether the N.F.L. will ever arrive at a just and rational way to discipline wayward players, employees and team owners.

Robinson concluded, after reviewing information from the league and Watson’s representatives, that Watson violated the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person and undermining the league’s integrity. Watson has denied the accusations against him.

Legal experts and sports scholars said that Robinson’s judgment on Monday, issued about 16 months after the first of 24 women sued Watson, reflected the N.F.L.’s uneven and evolving rules governing cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence.

Robinson was neither lenient nor stern, these experts said, but rather did the job the former judge was hired to as an independent arbitrator. She determined the facts based on presentations by the league and the N.F.L. Players Association and chose a penalty based on previous N.F.L. rulings.

In her 16-page report, Robinson suggested that Watson deserved tougher justice but said that the league’s own guidelines — including the line it drew between violent and nonviolent offenses — limited her authority to recommend a stiffer penalty. So she invited Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has that authority as an appeals officer, to seek a stricter punishment even if it is challenged by Watson and the players union in federal court.

“I think Watson’s case is a basket full of hot potatoes and she has shifted some of the hot potatoes to Goodell and he may shift some of them to court,” said Michael LeRoy, an arbitrator who teaches labor law at the University of Illinois.

The league and the players union each have until Thursday morning to appeal Robinson’s decision, which would be decided by Goodell or someone he designates, as agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement between both sides. The union said in advance of Robinson’s decision that it would not appeal, while the league said it is reviewing her findings and would “make a determination on next steps.”

The Watson case challenged the league’s disciplinary process from the beginning, when the first accuser filed suit in March 2021. Many of the other cases of violence against women that the league investigated prior centered on a player’s conduct toward just one woman. Watson was accused by more than two dozen women of hiring them for massages during which he was said to have engaged in sexual behavior they didn’t want or invite.

Yet the N.F.L. has rarely issued suspensions of more than six games for conduct violations, and in most such instances involving allegations of sexual misconduct or domestic violence, the accused player faced criminal charges or there was video, written or photographic evidence. Two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Watson.

Watson requested a trade from the Houston Texans shortly before the first lawsuit was filed, and the Cleveland Browns awarded him a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract in March 2022, before the civil suits were resolved or an N.F.L. penalty was assessed. High profile lawyers for Watson and the women slung arrows in public even as both sides worked toward settlements with all but one of his accusers.

The criticisms of the N.F.L.’s investigation, hearing and discipline process for Watson have further complicated the league’s attempts to more fairly adjudicate cases involving violence against women.

For many of the 16 years since he became commissioner, Goodell acted as the judge and jury in cases involving potential violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. Investigators who reported to him gathered the facts. He often met with accused players in person. He doled out penalties, and even heard appeals, leading to accusations that Goodell had outsized power over the outcomes.

Should the N.F.L. appeal Watson’s suspension, Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee will decide on the penalty.Credit…Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

In response, the union and the league agreed in 2020 to bring an independent arbiter into the process, handing off the initial review of whether a player violated the personal conduct policy to a jointly appointed disciplinary officer. Watson’s case was the first to go through the new protocol, yet the six-game suspension was met with as much if not more backlash as any penalty before it.

“Before they were too harsh, and now in a way, they were not harsh enough, but this was a much better process and didn’t put the integrity of the commissioner and the league in question,” said Bob Boland, who leads the sports law program at Seton Hall University. “The fact that the result is unsatisfying is unfortunate.”

While the new process appears to have functioned as intended, leaving Goodell out of the review of facts and the initial meting of a penalty, the league’s policies still seem like a work in progress. LeRoy pointed to the opening line of Robinson’s conclusion: “The N.F.L. may be a ‘forward-facing’ organization, but it is not necessarily a forward-looking one,” indicating that the N.F.L. is under a lot of scrutiny, but its approach to discipline has been mostly reactive.

After being criticized for its handling of the case involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who in 2014 was initially suspended for two games after he punched his fiancé in a hotel elevator, the N.F.L. rewrote its personal conduct policy to set a baseline of a six-game unpaid suspension for first offenders of specific violations: Criminal assault or battery, all forms of domestic violence and sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent.

In Robinson’s report, she concluded that Watson’s behavior toward the massage therapists was not violent under the N.F.L.’s definition of the term. As a result, she said, she was limited in the discipline she could hand out. Robinson wrote that while it may be “entirely appropriate” to more severely discipline players for what the N.F.L. defined as nonviolent sexual conduct, she did not believe it was fair to do so given the league’s current standards.

Juan Carlos Areán, a program director for the nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence, said that he did not believe a six-game suspension, without any requirement for counseling or intervention, was adequate to either deter or correct the behaviors of which Watson is accused. Because violence against women can take many forms, Areán said that policies should be written to give latitude to the person issuing discipline based on the specifics of each case.

“We know that you don’t have to use physical force, and it’s hard to prove use of physical force, when a sexual assault happens,” he said. “We also know that other kinds of assaults, emotional abuse and those kinds of things, can have a very adverse impact in victims. These are very complex issues, and you cannot just clearly quantify, ‘well, this is much worse than this.’”

Helen Drew, who teaches sports law at The University of Buffalo, agreed. She said that as Robinson interpreted the league’s definition of violence, the arbiter should have considered that the massage therapists likely saw Watson’s behavior as threatening and intimidating. Drew added that Watson through his actions damaged the integrity of the league, which itself is punishable.

“He’s not just some random dude, he’s an N.F.L. quarterback and he is using this status to prey upon women,” she said. “There is no rational way to find that the N.F.L. proved this and then not throw the book at him.”

In the end, the results were messy because the N.F.L. and other sports leagues have only started to address issues involving violence and harassment against women.

“Major league sports are 40 years behind on gender issues,” LeRoy said. “It’s a male-dominated sports world.”

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