What to Know About the Sexual Misconduct Lawsuits Against Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is the subject of 22 civil suits filed in March and April which accuse him of coercive and lewd sexual …
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is the subject of 22 civil suits filed in March and April which accuse him of coercive and lewd sexual behavior, with two that allege sexual assault. He has not been charged criminally and his lawyer has denied the accusations. Here’s where the cases stand.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Who is Deshaun Watson?
- What is Watson being accused of?
- How has Watson responded?
- Will Watson face criminal charges?
- Will the N.F.L. take any action?
- Will Watson play football this season?
- How have Watson’s sponsors responded?
Who is Deshaun Watson?
Deshaun Watson, 25, is a star quarterback for the Houston Texans, one of the best in the N.F.L. at his position.
In September 2020, he signed a four-year contract extension worth nearly $111 million guaranteed, tying him to the Texans through 2025. But Watson, disenchanted by the team’s poor personnel moves and failure to uphold a pledge to include him in the search process for a new coach and general manager, requested a trade. Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract that allows him to choose his next destination. The Texans, hopeful of repairing the rift, emphasized in January that they had no intention of trading him.
With Watson insistent and the Texans eager to move on, and if another team offers the package of draft picks the front office seeks — whether that happens before Watson’s status is resolved or not — Houston is likely to deal him.
Over the last year and a half, Watson grew into a leading voice among Black players who have protested racial injustice and police brutality. During the 2020 off-season, he took part in a player-led video that urged the N.F.L. to support protests by players, and after the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, Watson marched with his family — Floyd grew up in Houston — in a downtown protest.
What is Watson being accused of?
Twenty-two women have accused Watson of assault in civil lawsuits filed in Harris County, Texas. The lawyer representing them, Tony Buzbee, said the women have largely echoed one another’s claims of sexual misconduct and coercive behavior against Watson.
Although the 22 suits filed to date share many similarities, only two include claims of sexual assault: Watson was said in both cases to have pressured women to perform oral sex during massages and was accused in one of also having grabbed a woman’s buttocks and vagina. The civil suits claim that Watson engaged in a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to provide personal services, coercing them to touch him in a sexual manner, exposing himself to women he had hired for massages, or moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis. The incidents cited in the suits were said to have occurred from March 2020 to March 2021.
Two of Watson’s accusers publicly identified themselves on April 6, giving statements that described their alleged encounters. Ashley Solis, the first of the 22 women to file suit, read from a statement at a news conference held at Buzbee’s office. Another woman, Lauren Baxley, provided a letter she addressed to Watson that was read by one of Buzbee’s associates.
Watson’s lawyers filed a motion on April 8 asking the court to compel the plaintiffs to reveal their identities, citing the use of pseudonyms in civil suits as a violation of Texas state law. They condemned Buzbee for “conducting discovery by Facebook and trial by press conference” and for “asking the public to act as judge and jury.”
Twenty-one women added their names to the suits, which were consolidated for a judge’s review. One accuser dropped her suit out of privacy and safety concerns, and one new case was added, bringing the total number of active civil suits against Watson to 22.
At least one other massage therapist publicly accused Watson of similar behavior but had not hired Buzbee to represent her. She told Sports Illustrated in March that she was considering legal action.
Meredith J. Duncan, who teaches tort law and criminal law at the University of Houston Law Center, defined civil assault as intentionally or knowingly touching someone in a way that a reasonable person would regard as offensive.
“It just so happens in this case, the civil assault involves his genitals,” Duncan said. “But forcing another person to perform a sexual act, that’s a more aggravated form of sexual assault.”
Most of the incidents are said to have taken place in Texas, but according to the complaints, two are said to have occurred in Georgia, where Watson is from, and in California and Arizona, during his visits there. All of the lawsuits were filed in Harris County, Texas, because that is where Watson lives and works.
How has Watson responded?
Watson hasn’t commented publicly since the night of March 16, when the first complaint was filed. He said on Twitter that he had “never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect” and that he had rejected “a baseless six-figure settlement demand” made by Buzbee before the first suit was filed. Watson’s agent, David Mulugheta, publicly defended his client in social media posts on March 19.
Rusty Hardin, who represents Watson, issued a statement on March 19 calling the allegations against his client “meritless” and released a more detailed statement on March 23, in which he refuted the veracity of all the claims and described the first of two allegations of sexual assault as a blackmail attempt.
In another statement, issued on March 31, Hardin highlighted firsthand testimonials of 18 massage therapists who said they had worked with Watson over the past five years without experiencing any of the behavior described by the plaintiffs in the lawsuits.
At a news conference on April 9, Hardin acknowledged that Watson took part in sexual acts with some of the women, but claimed they were all consensual.
“Never at any time, under any circumstances, did this young man engage in anything that was not mutually desired,” Hardin said.
Buzbee, in a statement released on April 13, denied that argument.
“Mr. Watson may now claim he had consent to do what he did to these victims, but let’s be clear — in their minds he didn’t have consent, PERIOD,” the statement said.
Will Watson face criminal charges?
The Houston Police Department has spoken to at least 10 women, according to records obtained by The New York Times, from April 2 to May 20 of this year. The F.B.I. is investigating the case, according to Hardin and Buzbee. Watson has spoken to the F.B.I., and Hardin has said agents are investigating one of Buzbee’s clients for extortion, while Buzbee has said they are investigating Watson’s conduct.
The status of the criminal investigations into Watson’s conduct is unclear.
Watson has not talked with police investigators, Hardin told The Times on Sept. 3. “The police have made no attempt to reach out to Deshaun, and we don’t expect law enforcement to do so until they complete an investigation,” Hardin said.
He added that he would be surprised if the police investigation concluded before October.
Will the N.F.L. take any action?
The league opened an investigation into Watson’s conduct on March 18. In a letter addressed to Buzbee, Lisa Friel, a special counsel for investigations at the N.F.L., requested the cooperation of the accusers, and as of mid-August, according to Sports Illustrated, 10 of the 22 accusers had spoken with their investigators. Hardin reiterated in August that the league had not yet spoken with Watson.
A league spokesman said the matter was under review in relation to the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy. That policy governs off-field behavior involving players and coaches.
In a statement on April 2, after the Houston Police Department announced its investigation, the league said it was “continuing to monitor all developments in the matter which remains under review of the Personal Conduct Policy.”
The N.F.L.’s investigative unit conducts a probe separate from law enforcement’s, and follows a different set of protocols. Since the league does not have subpoena power, witnesses are not required to cooperate with their investigation. The N.F.L. approaches each interview as if it is the league’s only opportunity to glean information, a method accusers told Sports Illustrated did not reflect trauma-informed practices.
The N.F.L. hasn’t placed Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list, a paid suspension for players being investigated by the league for conduct violations, in part because he hasn’t been formally charged by prosecutors. But criminal charges are not a prerequisite, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has the latitude to place someone on the exempt list if he believes the personal conduct policy has been breached.
The Texans said in a March 18 statement that they would “continue to take this and all matters involving anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously” and that the team would not comment further until the league’s investigation had ended, a process with no public timeline. In his first public comment on the matter, the Texans’ chief executive, Cal McNair, wrote in an April email to season ticket-holders that the organization took the allegations “very seriously” and would cooperate fully with the Houston Police Department and N.F.L. investigations.
“While we await the conclusion of these investigations, we express our strong stance against any form of sexual assault,” McNair said.
Will Watson play football this season?
With his football and legal status in limbo, the N.F.L. in July permitted Watson to practice during training camp without restriction, and if he had not shown up he would have incurred a $50,000 fine for each missed day. Watson did not play in any of Houston’s three preseason games.
The Texans decided to keep him on the 53-man roster, but have addressed Watson’s continued presence in vague terms, saying they will make the best decision for the organization. On Sept. 6, Coach David Culley announced Tyrod Taylor as the team’s starting quarterback.
Watson, though, doesn’t want to play again for the Texans, and they don’t want him to play for them. Unless a team demonstrates a willingness to absorb the risk of acquiring Watson, it is all but certain he will not take a snap this season.
How have Watson’s sponsors responded?
Nike suspended its contract with Watson on April 7, the day after two of the accusers gave public statements describing their allegations. “We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson. We will continue to closely monitor the situation,” the company said in a statement.
Watson’s deal with Apple’s Beats by Dre reportedly was not renewed. Many of his other sponsorships, which included Rolex and several Texas-area businesses, were allowed to expire.
Who is Tony Buzbee?
Tony Buzbee is a Houston plaintiffs lawyer who has worked on personal injury cases for years but is perhaps best known for his involvement in mass tort and class-action cases, including the litigation after Hurricane Ike and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago. He doesn’t appear to have represented many women in cases involving sexual assault.
A former marine, Buzbee flaunts his outsize personality and wealth on social media. The first two words on the website for Buzbee’s law firm are “Just Win,” and he has a tattoo of a shark on his right forearm.
Although he has said he does not support the Texans, Buzbee, a Texas A&M graduate, in 2014 put up 10 billboards urging the team’s now-deceased owner, Bob McNair, to draft Johnny Manziel, an Aggies quarterback; McNair didn’t take his advice. Buzbee lives on the same tony Houston street as Cal McNair, but said in a news conference that he did not know McNair. Buzbee also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Houston in 2019.
Who is Rusty Hardin?
A former Texas state prosecutor who became a defense lawyer, Hardin has represented numerous prominent clients, from star athletes to the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the Enron scandal. He also worked in the independent counsel’s office in the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration.
Among the athletes he has defended are the pitcher Roger Clemens, against perjury charges in 2012; the N.F.L. running back Adrian Peterson, who was accused of felony child abuse in 2014; and the N.B.A. star James Harden, who was accused in 2017 of paying four people to attack and rob Moses Malone Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame N.B.A. player.