Three weeks after the initial allegations against Deshaun Watson surfaced in a Texas courthouse, the first consequences landed.
Nike, Beats by Dre and Reliant Energy halted their endorsement deals with the Houston Texans star quarterback on Wednesday. Even as the number of lawsuits that described sexual assault or harassment filed in Houston ticked up to 22, it wasn’t until that first massage therapist who filed a civil complaint came forward in a news conference Tuesday that the brands decided it was time to act.
Watson has denied the allegations in the lawsuits. His lead attorney, Rusty Hardin, told reporters at a news conference Friday that Watson is “truly dumbfounded” by the allegations.
Those with deep ties to the NFL interviewed by Front Office Sports said they think the fallout is only beginning for Watson.
“It’s all very disturbing,” a former team executive told FOS. “Even if he were to get cleared, I still couldn’t bring this into my organization. It’s just hard and possibly unfair because we don’t know if he’s guilty or not, but there’s just so much out there that I couldn’t be part of it.”
Still, if history is any sort of indication, players have hit the proverbial rock bottom before and rebounded.
Michael Vick resumed his career after he served 23 months in a Kansas federal prison for his role in a dog-fighting ring and he’s currently a Fox Sports analyst. Ben Roethlisberger served a four-game ban in 2010 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy months after police investigated — although did not charge the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback — over an alleged sexual assault months earlier in a Milledgeville, Ga., bar. Adrian Peterson has played six seasons since his suspension related to physically abusing his then-4-year-old son that led to a charge he pleaded no contest to in 2014.
All those instances were investigated by law enforcement, something the Houston Police Department commenced last week after the first accuser filed a report. There doesn’t have to be charges filed or a conviction for an NFL player to be in violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. The policy states “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel” is enough for the league to issue discipline.
“This just makes the shield look bad,” one longtime agent said. “If the Texans wanted to, they could slap him with a letter outlining that his conduct has been detrimental and void all his guarantees and all that other stuff. They’re not going to do that, even if it makes him easier to trade.”
Watson signed afour-year, $156 million contract extension before last season, complete with a no-trade clause. Watson has $82.5 million of remaining guarantees that, while unlikely, the Texans could move to void.
The 25-year-old demanded a trade in January after J.J. Watt and the team mutually parted ways and management backed off on its promise to include Watson in the interview process that led to the hire of David Culley. Several teams reportedly contacted the Texans asking about his availability.
Beyond his massive contract, the market for Watson shrunk with an NFL investigation underway into the allegations.
“No team is going to touch him now with a 10-foot pole,” the former league executive said.
The NFL’s own investigators have been in touch with Tony Buzbee’s law firm, which represents all 22 women. Even though we are in the offseason and Watson was unlikely to attend OTAs with his trade demand, the league could still opt to put him on the commissioner’s exempt list that amounts to paid leave as the investigation continues.
Those interviewed for this story told Front Office Sports that the slow pace of both brands and the NFL taking their time on deciding how to handle all of these expansive accusations comes down to two things: Watson’s untarnished reputation prior to the allegations and the fact that the lawsuits were filed in civil court for weeks before any of the alleged victims went to the police.
“I am a survivor of assault and harassment,” said Ashley Solis, the plaintiff in the first lawsuit who became the first massage therapist to come forward publicly at Tuesday’s news conference. “Deshaun Watson is my assaulter and harasser.”
Hardin was granted an emergency hearing Friday in front of two Harris County district court judges that involved 13 of the 22 cases, where he argued that “Jane Doe” lawsuits left Watson “powerless” to answer the allegations.
Before Judge Rabeea Sultan Collie made her ruling Friday, Buzbee showed the court at one of the hearings a screenshot of an anonymous message Solis received through her business massage website after coming forward that read, in part, “I hope (you) get raped.”
“When you see these kinds of lawsuits play out where the plaintiff is slandered or is threatened to have their personal information leaked, it discourages other potential victims from coming forward,” said attorney Adrienne Lawrence, a senior consultant at Jennifer Brown Consulting and legal analyst on the streaming network The Young Turks. “They’re going to be afraid that they will have that exact same experience and that they won’t be able to hold their assailants accountable in a court of law.”
Judges Dedra Davis and Sultan Collier ruled that those cases could not proceed with the woman remaining anonymous under Texas law. Buzbee was given until Wednesday to refile those cases that will include the names of the accusers, and Buzbee said in court that at least nine of the women have agreed to proceed with their names listed in amended complaints.
“Unfortunately, there’s really not much here that Watson can do to get his reputation back,” said Dan Lust, a sports law attorney at Geragos & Geragos. “Even if everything’s thrown out, I think it exposed a flaw in a civil justice system. You could just throw somebody’s name out there — regardless if the accusations are true or false — and their reputation is harmed forever.”
Watson’s conduct — even if he wins in civil court or criminal court should police seek charges — will be scrutinized by teams, brands and the public, at least in the near term. Beyond the 22 women, there are another 18 women whose Watson’s legal provided statements that stated Watson did nothing improper.
Hardin said the the numbers of therapists he used wasn’t out of the ordinary given he gets two or three massages a week and “the massage world during the pandemic changed.”
NFL teams have massage therapists, athletic trainers, doctors and physical therapists on staff. While it’s not usual for a player to have a masseuse or two on the side as well, the sheer number of therapists used — many Watson set up using his Instagram account — has shocked those close to the NFL.
“All the teams’ people are vetted,” the former NFL executive said of the massage therapists used by clubs. “There’s no risk involved. This is crazy. Even if he writes a check and makes it all go away, that’s still a big red flag.”