HOUSTON — Late last week, when details of the NFL’s suspension in the Deshaun Watson investigation began to circulate privately between parties involved in the case, a source in the middle of it all suggested there was a single piece of information from the competition wanted publicly leaked. It was a nugget that would act as a public relations shield if Watson’s hearing before an independent disciplinary arbitrator didn’t unfold the way the league bureau thought it should.
In the event that that happened, the source believed the NFL wanted the public to know what it had been pushing for: a minimum one-year suspension.
“I think there’s a reason it’s getting around because that’s what the NFL wants,” the source told Yahoo Sports. “What if the arbiter takes a look at everything and comes back with a 10-game suspension? If everyone knows that the league wanted a one-year suspension, it gives the NFL the opportunity to just say, ‘We’ve been looking for a tougher sanction, but we’re not nor are we going to go to a collectively negotiated trial and undermine this arbitrator in their first major case, or.”
Less than 24 hours after that allegation was made Friday, multiple outlets reported Watson’s disciplinary hearing was set to take place Tuesday. And the Wall Street Journal reported that the NFL was indeed seeking an indefinite suspension that would last at least a year, after which Watson could file a petition for reinstatement. Shortly afterwards, several outlets confirmed the message.
If the league wanted the expectation of a one-year suspension to get into the public’s consciousness, it got the message across.
Who is Referee Sue Robinson?
What does this mean for independent arbitrator Sue Robinson, who will now come under scrutiny when it comes to figuring out what the league found in her investigation?
Unlike years past, when the NFL and NFL Players Association were constantly waging a behind-the-scenes war over whether the league’s arbitration process was fair, Robinson’s stance is the culmination of the latest collective bargaining agreement, which addresses an old problem between the competition and the union is fought. Not only has Robinson been jointly selected by the NFL and the union to serve as a disciplinary arbitrator, she will be paid by both for her services. And she comes with pretty unassailable credentials, having earned herself a federal judgeship in 1991 under the George HW Bush administration. Ultimately, she served her federal appointment until 2017, overlapping five presidential administrations.
Now she’s sifting through the NFL’s Watson investigation that lasted nearly 16 months. When the hearings begin on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the lawsuit told Yahoo Sports that the league is expected to take a fairly narrow approach when it comes to whether Watson has violated the league’s personal conduct policy, though the scope is yet to come. seems to be in some debate.
A source told Yahoo Sports that the NFL has targeted six women who have accused Watson of sexual misconduct or assault in their interactions with him. A second source said the number of women is five.
Both sources agreed on the NFL’s one fundamental approach: The league’s investigators wanted to continue their suspension based on the women with the most available evidence for presentation. That includes digital data in the form of text messages, personal social media messages, payment details and other contemporaneous forms of evidence, which may include conversations the prosecutors had with others in the immediate aftermath of their alleged encounters with the former Houston Texans and current Cleveland Browns quarterback.
Why the NFL may not appeal Robinson’s ruling if it’s a less than 1 year ban on Watson?
Robinson will also hear from what amounts to the legal “aces” when it comes to the attorneys handling each side of the case, between the NFL’s special counsel for investigations, Lisa Friel, and the NFLPA’s oft-backed heavy hitter. Jeffrey Kessler, who has a wealth of experience fighting competition in labor and disciplinary negotiations.
Sources on both sides of the hearing appear to agree that there are three aspects that will be crucial once everything is settled:
Where will Robinson land on Watson’s suspension prospects once she’s weighed all the evidence from the NFL investigators? Will she find things credible? Do the alleged incidents meet the standard for one or more violations of the personal conduct policy? And if so, what is the appropriate suspension for one or more violations?
Is there any precedent that Robinson believes applies in this case? While the number of charges against Watson suggests this is unprecedented territory for a single player, the league’s push for a one-year suspension is not. Last year, the NFL suspended Calvin Ridley for at least one calendar year after a gambling investigation. And in recent years, the league has also suspended players and coaches for various violations following investigations (see, for example: Saints’ bounty scandal). What, if there is precedent at all, plays a role in the violations and the length of the suspension?
Perhaps most importantly for the NFL, will the league be willing to essentially overturn Robinson’s decision with an appeal if she moves in a direction that doesn’t overlap with the NFL’s penalty suggestion?
The latter issue is being talked about more behind the scenes than some may realize. Robinson represents a new and supposedly more equitable addition to the competition’s disciplinary process. She is jointly agreed and jointly appointed to be the voice that ultimately finds the right and fair middle ground. But she’s not the final arbiter if anyone isn’t happy with her decision. Both parties can ultimately appeal Robinson’s decision in terms of the length of the suspension, leaving the final decision to Goodell or whoever he would designate to hear an appeal.
If that sounds like this is something that is ultimately in the hands of the competition, that’s because it is – if the league wants to take it down that road.
In this case, if Robinson disagrees with the NFL and imposes a suspension of less than a year, will the NFL appeal? An appeal that would go to Goodell or his appointee?
As a source put it on Sunday: “I honestly think the NFL will agree with what Robinson decides because I don’t think they want to break her on her very first big decision. It would be a bad impression for the NFL to come out and say that this long-serving, jointly elected federal judge was essentially wrong in her first attempt at doing it, then appeal to Roger [Goodell] or whoever he chooses, for what, in effect, would be a unilateral final decision on discipline. If that’s what’s happening, what’s the point of having a disciplinary judge elected by two parties? What’s the point if the NFL comes out and says the federal judge they helped choose is somehow incompetent?”
While that question may sound deep in the weeds in the Watson case, it may play a bigger role in what unfolds this week than people realize. It may also be why the NFL wanted the suggestion for a one-year suspension in the public sphere.
Now that that is the case, the league has a chance to accept Robinson’s final decision, but also convey to the public that they still believed a more severe penalty was worth it. Ultimately, that could be a middle ground that the NFL can live with.