Despite a seemingly favorable ruling of six games suspension for Deshaun Watson, the Browns have far from out of the woods as Commissioner Roger Goodell considers appealing the decision. (TheLandOnDemand)
Sue Robinson’s six-game suspension of Deshaun Watson is no reason for the Browns to celebrate
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Takeaways from Day 5 of Browns training camp …
When news broke of NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s decision to suspend Deshaun Watson for only six games early Monday morning, the gut reaction was the Browns dodged a bullet and had to be satisfied, if not ecstatic, with the ruling.
The league had argued for an indefinite suspension with a minimum of a full season and Watson’s side argued for zero games. So Robinson seemingly did the Browns a favor by not even splitting the difference and settling on eight or nine games suspension.
But when the language of Robinson’s ruling was released, what emerged was a damning corroboration of the NFL’s case that Watson committed three violations of the league’s personal conduct policy among the four complaints considered in this case.
Robinson, a retired U.S. District Court judge, ruled that:
1. Watson engaged in sexual assault – as defined by the NFL – against the four massage therapists identified in the report.
2. Watson’s conduct “posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.”
3. Watson “acted with a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions by exposing himself (and the NFL) to such public scrutiny and speculation … [His] predatory conduct cast a negative light on the League and its players, sufficient proof that he violated this provision of the Policy.”
So why did Robinson penalize Watson for only six games?
One of the key factors was she classified Watson’s offenses as “non-violent.”She cited that no player has been penalized for more than three games for “non-violent” sexual assault and the most common penalty for first-time offenders involving violence was six games.
Robinson upped Watson’s penalty to six games for aggravating factors such as his “lack of expressed remorse and his tardy notice to the NFL of the first-filed lawsuit.”
She noted Watson’s pattern of conduct “is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL.”
No victory laps
So Robinson’s ruling was hardly a reason for celebration by the Browns.
The team responded with a statement attributed to owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam that read, in part:
“We respect Judge Robinson’s decision, and at the same time, empathize and understand that there have been many individuals triggered throughout this process. We know Deshaun is remorseful that this situation has caused much heartache to many and he will continue the work needed to show who he is on and off the field, and we will continue to support him.”
Watson expressed remorse in June that his case has caused heartache to others, but he never expressed remorse for his actions in the massage sessions. In fact, he repeatedly pledged he never assaulted or disrespected women.
Robinson essentially found Watson’s accusers more credible than him in the telling of what happened in the sessions.
Thus, the Browns are receiving a new round of intense criticism for supporting Watson after an independent disciplinary officer and retired judge termed his conduct "predatory" and "egregious", and concluded that he was not remorseful and also less than truthful in his testimony.
As usual, the Browns left their monotone, unflappable coach to respond to questions about the ruling. Kevin Stefanski claimed he had not read Robinson’s report and continued his intent to “respect the process” of Watson’s discipline.
As for the message he would give to female fans of the Browns in the wake of Robinson’s report, Stefanski said, “I feel incredible empathy for anyone who has been impacted by this decision. It is something that I do not take lightly. I have spoken to women in our organization. I have spoken to women in the community. That is something that I will continue to do. Our fans, whether you are a man or a woman, our fans are really important to us, so I want to make sure that they understand that and that they are never going to be dismissed in any way.”
Robinson’s “recommendation” for six games suspension does not end this process. The Browns have to sweat out whether the NFL lengthens the suspension on appeal.
The new conduct policy – the same one agreed to by the players union -- allows the NFL to appeal Robinson’s decision. It has until Thursday at 9 a.m. to appeal.
“We appreciate Judge Robinson's diligence and professionalism throughout this process,” the NFL said in a statement. "Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson's imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell can rule on the appeal or he can appoint a designee.
There are a few reasons Goodell might accept Robinson’s ruling as is.
He could accept her ruling out of respect for the process that the NFL and players union collectively bargained and elect not to undermine Robinson’s first decision as disciplinary officer.
He could accept her ruling so as not to interfere with the festivities of Pro Football Hall of Fame week in Canton, which serve as the unofficial kickoff to the new NFL season.
He could accept her ruling to avoid a possible retaliatory federal lawsuit threatened by the NFLPA, which would seek to dredge up dirt from ownership violations of the personal conduct policy that may not have been adequately disciplined by Goodell.
Or he could stand up for the rights of the women violated and pursue a stiffer penalty, one that may be as long as the indefinite suspension sought by the NFL investigators of the Watson case.
The Browns feel they will overcome the PR backlash of Watson’s actions once he gets on the field and performs like they think he will.
But the fact is, even after a seemingly favorable ruling by Robinson, the Browns are walking on eggshells, fearing that Watson could still be suspended for much longer than six games.
Their season now rests on the whims of Goodell, who was given ample reason by Robinson to impose a stiffer penalty.