The NFL has instructed Peter C. Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general, to hear his appeal against the six-game suspension of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for multiple violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, according to a spokesperson for the NFL. League.
On Wednesday, the NFL filed an appeal against Watson’s suspension, which was issued by a third-party disciplinary officer after a three-day hearing in June that probed allegations that he had engaged in sexually coercive and obscene behavior during the massages. Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge appointed jointly by the league and the NFL Players Association, found Watson engaged in “predatory” and “egregious” conduct, but suggested that she be limited in her authority to enforce stricter discipline by the NFL policies and past sentences.
The union has until Friday to submit a response to the league’s appeal, but there is no deadline for Harvey to deliver a sentence. The League said the appeal will be heard on an “accelerated” basis.
Watson denied the charges against him. Two grand juries in Texas refused to indict him on criminal charges and he resolved 23 of 24 lawsuits filed against him by women who claimed assaulted or harassed them during massage appointments.
His is the first hearing on a player’s conduct to be passed through a third-party referee, a new procedure foreseen in 2020 by the collective labor agreement between the League and the players’ union. Under his terms, the arbitrator issued an initial ruling, which either side could appeal to Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choice. The league still has a huge influence on the final result because it has what amounts to a veto power.
Before Robinson suspended Watson for six games, the NFL asked for at least a full year suspension. The league is seeking the same penalty in its appeal and has also recommended a fine and treatment for Watson, according to a person familiar with the brief the NFL filed on Wednesday but is not authorized to speak out publicly. The NFL also cited concerns over Watson’s lack of remorse, as did Robinson in its report on his decision.
Robinson’s discipline did not include a fine or counseling for Watson, but required as a condition for his reinstatement to use only team-approved massage therapists, in team-directed sessions, for the duration of his career.
Harvey, a partner of Patterson Belknap in New York and a former federal attorney, has worked to address violence against women, including through an initiative by the sexual assault response team he led as Attorney General. He is also a board member of Futures Without Violence, a non-profit organization that seeks political solutions to end violence against women and children.
Harvey helped the NFL rewrite its personal conduct policy in 2014 and is part of the league’s diversity advisory board created in March. He was a four-person jury member who advised Goodell in 2017 during the NFL investigation and subsequent suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, accused of domestic violence but not criminally charged.
Goodell suspended Elliott for six games after consulting with the advisory panel.
Tony Buzbee, Watson’s prosecutors’ attorney, held a press conference Thursday afternoon in which he called the NFL record on violence against women “sketchy and grim” and urged Goodell to issue a stronger sanction. Ashley Solis, the licensed masseuse who filed the first lawsuit against Watson in March 2021, read a statement in which she criticized the NFL’s handling of the allegations against Watson. Solis resolved her plea against Watson the night before Robinson released her decision.
“What do the actions of the NFL say to girls who have suffered at the hands of someone who is believed to have the power?” Solis said. “Isn’t that a big deal? Who doesn’t care? ”He said this is the message he got from the League’s response.
Goodell and the league have been criticized for years because the commissioner handled all aspects of the personal conduct policy violations, including gathering facts, issuing punishments and hearing appeals.
The union fought to diminish some of Goodell’s powers in the latest CBA by having a jointly approved disciplinary officer listen to the league and union presentations and impose a penalty. But if the disciplinary officer discovers that there is a violation of the personal conduct policy, Goodell or his designee still have the final say on extending the discipline.
During its 15-month investigation into the allegations against Watson, the NFL interviewed 49 people, including Watson, 12 of his accusers, and other witnesses. Not all women who filed a lawsuit against Watson chose to interview the league.
The union may decide to challenge the results of the appeal in federal court, as it has done in the past with other player conduct decisions. But the courts tend not to interfere with companies and unions that have jointly approved arbitration and appeals procedures, as the league and the players’ association have done.