Tuesday will be a key day for the Cleveland Browns and quarterback Deshaun Watson as the NFL will begin its disciplinary hearing over whether or not Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
Watson has been dealing for the past year with 24 civil lawsuits filed by women who accused him of sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions while he played for the Houston Texans. Watson recently agreed to settle 20 of the lawsuits.
The NFL is reportedly seeking to drop the hammer on Watson and will argue for a “significant suspension” before Sue L. Robinson, the disciplinary officer who was jointly appointed by the league and the NFLPA. What “significant” means is not clear, but it is probably safe to say that a one-year suspension is the starting point.
With Deshaun Watson's discipline looming, the NFLPA is preparing to wage a high-powered battle vs. the NFL. The union has already brought in Jeffrey Kessler to defend the quarterback.— Andrew Beaton (@andrewlbeaton) June 17, 2022
New with @louiseradnofsky: https://t.co/iGmiyTdnza
To counter that, the NFLPA is reportedly planning a strategy focused on why owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys were not suspended by the league for a variety of off-field incidents involving them and their teams.
Arguing the case in Watson’s defense will be lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, a sports labor lawyer who was involved in bringing free agency to the NFL and also successfully argued in front of the Supreme Court that the NCAA had violated antitrust law by placing strict limits on how much compensation college athletes may receive.
The #NFL wanted its headline recommending strong discipline in advance of the hearing officer weighing in & the league got it via the WSJ (see Jon Gruden story). Alternately, anyone who knows of Jeffrey Kessler & his history vs the NFL—knows why the heavy has been brought in. https://t.co/twGfu9t47Q— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) June 26, 2022
According to The Wall Street Journal’s Anthony Beaton, the NFLPA only brings in Kessler for its “most significant and contentious issues,” so the union is not content to just sit back and let the NFL have its way with Watson.
A quick look at his bio reveals that Kessler is indeed no stranger to defending the rights of athletes:
Jeffrey is also one of the United States’ most prominent lawyers regularly engaged in high-profile sports litigation. He has litigated some of the most famous sports-antitrust cases in history, including the landmark college players-brought Alston v. NCAA case, in which, following Jeffrey’s oral argument, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed his and co-counsel’s earlier “groundbreaking and disruptive” trial victory against the NCAA in this antitrust challenge to its no-compensation rules; McNeil v. The NFL, the watershed antitrust jury trial that led to the establishment of free agency in the National Football League (NFL); and Brady v. NFL, which led to the end of the 2011 NFL lockout.
In the area of NFL discipline, he represented the NFLPA on behalf of Ray Rice, Tom Brady (in “Deflategate”), Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson, and the “Bountygate” players.
Once Robinson hears both sides, she can decide that Watson did not violate the league’s personal conduct policy, which would end the NFL’s involvement in the situation. If she decides that some form of disciplinary action should take place, either side can appeal the decision to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who can either make a ruling rule on the appeal or bring in an independent party to make the final decision.
Robinson has never issued a ruling on a case involving an NFL player. While there is no set timetable for her to make a decision, the expectation is that it will come sometime before the Browns open training camp at the end of July so that any appeal process can begin in a timely fashion.