Could new lawsuits cause Deshaun Watson’s Browns guarantees to be at risk?

Since Roger Goodell said two weeks ago the NFL’s Deshaun Watson
investigation was nearing an end, two more women filed civil lawsuits against the Browns quarterback. Following the 23rd suit, Watson’s defense team denied the reported victim’s account. After the 24th, Rusty Hardin indicated the defense only learned the latest reported victim’s name when the suit was filed.

The 24th reported victim presenting new information could open the door to Watson’s Browns guarantees being at risk. The Browns structured Watson’s fully guaranteed contract so the guarantees would not void if he was suspended based on one of the then-22 civil suits, but Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk raises the prospect of a ban based partially on a new lawsuit penetrating the bulletproof guarantee language. It is still possible the Hardin-led camp and the Browns were aware of another potential suit, but it coming more than two months after Watson signed his contract creates some uncertainty regarding the guarantees.

Given their extraordinary effort to acquire Watson via the record-shattering $230M guaranteed figure, it seems unlikely the team would push to void guarantees. Still, the Browns continue to see detailed accounts of accusations against their trade acquisition emerge.

An expansive report from the New York Times’ Jenny Vrentas indicates Watson received massages from at least 66 women over a 17-month span from fall 2019 to spring 2021, the end of this time frame bringing forth the avalanche of allegations against the then-Texans passer. Women who did not sue Watson allege that the 26-year-old QB attempted to turn massage therapy sessions into sexual encounters, and Vrentas adds another woman withdrew her complaint due to “privacy and security concerns.”

Including Instagram messages between Watson and reported victims and testimony from the ongoing civil trials — said testimony revealing, in at least one of the suits, Watson admitting a masseuse’s experience and skill level was not a priority — Vrentas’ piece also includes civil testimony in which Watson said the Texans helped him with a nondisclosure agreement. The 23rd woman to file suit against Watson, Nia Smith, shared texts, Watson’s phone number and some of his Cash App receipts on her Instagram account after his alleged sexual misconduct during their three massage sessions. Watson said the Texans provided an NDA in late 2020, and Vrentas reports he began taking NDAs to massage sessions soon after.

The NFL has interviewed 21 of the first 22 women to accuse Watson of sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot, and has concluded its interviews with the embattled passer, who switched his Twitter account to private following Vrentas’ story. Goodell said in March that, based on NFL and NFLPA talks, Watson would not be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Barring the Browns asking Watson to stay away from their workouts, he will continue to practice with his new team. If the NFL did not know about the information uncovered in Vrentas’ account, Yahoo.com’s Charles Robinson discusses whether the exempt list (paid leave) would now apply. The NFL did not place Watson on the exempt list last year; the Texans instead deactivated him 17 times.

A suspension is expected to be announced in July, and the run of information leading up to the independent arbitrator’s (and later Goodell’s) decision could increase the likelihood of a lengthy ban. This matter stands to hang over Watson for most or all of 2023 as well, with the civil trials going on pause from Aug. 1, 2022 through March 1, 2023. A second suspension could take place once the suits conclude. Watson missed his age-26 season due to these accusations and his previous trade request. The negative PR coming his way may well prompt the NFL to levy a harsh ban, putting his age-27 campaign in jeopardy.

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