Deshaun Watson Returns to Football With a New Move. No Contrition

Watson, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by over two dozen people, apologized, saying, “I am sincerely sorry.” The fact that he showed no remorse for his actions contributed to the six-game suspension he received during the regular season. Deshaun Watson started Friday night’s N.F.L. preseason game after being away from the sport for 19 months.

Before the game started, the quarterback for the Cleveland Browns did something else that had been nearly as long in coming: he apologized for the first time since more than two dozen women said he sexually abused or harassed them in massage visits. A league adviser was still considering Watson’s eligibility for the regular season as he entered the field in front of a sparse crowd at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field and heard boos.

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A neutral disciplinary officer handed down a six-game suspension for him last week; the NFL immediately appealed, demanding a longer suspension for several infractions of the league’s personal conduct policy. Watson’s counsel had initially fought for no missed time, but The Associated Press reported the day before the game and Watson’s apology that Watson would be ready to accept an eight-game suspension and a $5 million fine.

In an interview with the Browns broadcast team, Watson expressed his regret to the ladies he had wronged. “I would want to go back in time and change the choices I made that led me to this place in my life, but I am determined to move forward, learn from my experiences, and demonstrate that I am a person of integrity and worth.”

There was mounting concern over Watson’s availability to start as game time drew near. He will be suspended for the first week of the regular season, but he can still play in all preseason games and workouts. However, Watson would have been immediately removed from all team activities and would have had to ask for reinstatement at the end of the season had the appeal given the season-long punishment that the league was pushing for and the decision was reached before the game.

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, appointed Peter C. Harvey, the former attorney general of New Jersey, to hear the appeal and make a decision on the matter in an “expedited” manner. There is currently no set date for this to occur. Watson was named the starter for Friday’s preseason game after the Browns revealed the decision on Wednesday. Even though he appeared rusty and completed only one of five passes in three offensive series before being taken out of the game, his play was largely irrelevant.

Retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson, who was appointed by the NFL and the players’ union to preside over the disciplinary hearing, found that Watson had violated multiple articles of the league’s personal conduct policy on August 1. Robinson described Watson’s actions as “predatory” and “egregious.” In accordance with the new disciplinary process set down in the 2020 CBA, the league filed an appeal two days later.

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The league raised concerns about Watson’s lack of remorse in advocating for a season-long suspension in addition to a fine and counseling, and Robinson took those concerns into account when making her decision. In a statement released last week, Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam voiced their support for Watson and said they believed he had shown “remorse.” Watson made his first public expression of regret for his behavior in his comments before Friday’s game.

During a press conference in June, Watson refuted the allegations and expressed regret for the harm they had caused his colleagues and others close to him. Watson resolved 23 cases brought against him by women who said he attacked or harassed them during massage treatments, and two Texas grand juries chose not to indict him on criminal charges.

Watson will miss the Browns’ season opener against the Carolina Panthers on September 11, the week he is suspended. He last appeared in a game for the Houston Texans on January 3, 2021, and that was an exhibition. The first complaint was filed against him in March 2021, and he asked for a transfer that same month. Watson was suspended for the entire 2021 NFL season despite being eligible to play.

This spring, when a grand jury in Texas decided not to indict Watson, the Browns made a trade for him. After trading several first-round picks to Houston for Watson, the franchise signed him to a five-year, $230 million contract with no performance-based bonuses.

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