BEREA, Ohio — If you were going to trace the NFL’s Deshaun Watson appeal back to a starting point, to a juncture where it became likely the league was going to overturn a decision from independent arbitrator Sue L. Robinson, it would have been early in the disciplinary hearing attended by Watson and his legal camp, along with representatives from the NFL and NFL Players Association.
That’s when the league’s lawyers were first informed by Robinson that the NFL very likely was not going to land the indefinite one-year suspension it was seeking for the Cleveland Browns quarterback, multiple sources familiar with the proceedings told Yahoo Sports.
It was a revelation that Robinson delivered in front of everyone in attendance, sources said. It instantly established an eyebrow-raising blow to the NFL’s effort to impose a landmark suspension of Watson, who was accused of sexual misconduct or sexual assault against multiple women, a violation of the league's personal conduct policy. It was a moment that surprised some in attendance, who wrongly assumed Robinson wouldn’t tip her hand on a potential ruling in the middle of the process.
It also served as a warning to the NFL, giving the league its first chance to ponder what ultimately unfolded more than one month later: A league appeal of Robinson’s six-game suspension, which was far less punitive than the NFL wanted; and a commandeering — or undercutting — of a revamped disciplinary process that was established in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement.
Arbitrator's early signal shaped Watson-NFL settlement talks
Robinson putting the NFL on notice during the hearings brings some clarity to what followed in the Watson case in July. It explains why media leaks began almost instantly that Watson would get a lesser punishment than the league was pushing for. It also explains why Watson’s camp and the union were emboldened to take a hard line in settlement talks, which ultimately ended with the NFL suggesting a 12-game suspension and a fine that would have accounted for a significant portion of the $10.5 million Watson earned with the Houston Texans in 2021. To some engaged in the talks, it felt like the NFL was trying to turn Watson’s final season with the Texans (in which he never took the field) into a retroactive suspension. It was something the NFL could later point to and say, “Look, he lost most of what he made in 2021 and never took the field. So he was basically suspended. Now he’s suspended another 12 games on top of that.”
Ultimately, those settlement talks could be the key to what happens next. Largely because it’s commissioner Roger Goodell who will name a league-friendly designee as the final arbitrator in this case, and it stands to reason that the next arbitrator will be well aware of what the NFL was pushing for in settlement talks.
What does this all mean?
Well, let's first take a look in the rearview mirror. When this all started, Robinson was touted as an independent arbitrator who offered to bring balance to the NFL’s justice system. In the wake of the league’s appeal, the curtain has been pulled back to reveal what many suspected about the proceedings from Day 1: Even with an independent arbitrator in place, the most significant element of power still rests in the NFL's hands. And that’s ultimately the only window that matters in the years that follow. The NFL had an opportunity to leave a significant point of suspension power in the hands of an arbitrator. Instead, it chose to override that arbitrator and take that control back.
Some will argue it was the correct move in the Watson case. Others will cry foul. But the facts are what they are. The NFL had a lever to take control where it counted most, and it pulled it Wednesday.
NFL seeks 1 of these 2 outcomes for Deshaun Watson
All of which brings back into focus what the league is asking for as part of its appeal. According to sources familiar with the appeal, the NFL is seeking one of two outcomes:
Watson would be suspended indefinitely for one year. During that year, he would undergo an element of treatment related to the behavior established in his case. At the end of the year, Watson would apply for reinstatement and if he meets the league’s criteria, he will come back into the fold for the Browns. In this scenario, Watson wouldn’t be subject to a fine as part of his punishment. However, his contract in Cleveland would toll, essentially starting his five-year extension in 2023 rather than 2022.
That latter point is considerable, as it would effectively push Watson’s next contract out one year, erasing a season of earning power from his career.
Watson would be subject to a significant fine if his suspension is ultimately less than one year. Similar to the first outcome, he would also have to undergo treatment during his suspension. Think of this scenario as mapping with the league’s last settlement volley in July, which would have suspended Watson 12 games and fined him something near the neighborhood of his 2021 salary of $10.5 million. It would be a considerable financial cost for Watson, but also one that ends with him returning to the NFL without having to apply for reinstatement or tolling his current contract for one year.
The inherent problem with both of those outcomes is that Watson and the union have already rejected both — in the hearing with Robinson and in various settlement talks before and after those proceedings. The difference now is Watson’s ability to find options is narrowing. With the NFL taking control of the tail end of the disciplinary process, the findings of Goodell’s designee will be binding, per collective bargaining agreement rules.
That means if the designee reaches an outcome that Watson and the union reject, the next step is to follow in the footsteps of Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott and take the NFL’s disciplinary process to court. Even then, Watson may be at a larger disadvantage than either of those other players because neither Brady nor Elliott went through an independent arbitrator to determine whether or not they had violated the league’s personal conduct policy. Watson did, and that arbitrator said clearly in her decision that he violated the policy when he was deemed to have committed "nonviolent sexual conduct." And the league’s appeal of the suspension is something that was willingly handed over by the union during CBA negotiations.
That sounds like an uphill battle, one that started with the last CBA and the structure of a disciplinary process that remains what it was before: Resting in the hands of a league that doesn’t appear to have qualms about controlling it, especially when it gets advance notice that things aren’t going to go the way it expects.