Some in the league office believed that Commissioner Roger Goodell would not allow Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson to play with 22 civil actions pending. Goodell’s remarks from Tuesday seemingly take the possibility of paid leave until the cases are resolved off the table.
“If the criminal [cases] had proceeded, that more than likely would have triggered the Commissioner exempt [list],” Goodell said. “I think at this point, the civil case in and of itself would not do that. If there’s a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy, that may trigger something, but that more than likely trigger some kind of discipline in some fashion.”
There was (and still may be) a belief among some at 345 Park Avenue that the Commissioner would not (and should not) let Watson play with 22 pending civil cases, and that he would (should) be be placed on paid leave until the litigation ends. After that, he’d then face a potential unpaid suspension.
So what will happen if paid leave won’t happen? The NFL could suspend Watson now, if it believes there’s enough evidence to justify a finding of a violation, and be done with it. It also can impose a suspension, and it can leave the door open for further action based on the manner in which the cases are resolved. Or the league can wait until the cases end before taking any action.
Last year, when the Dolphins were interested in trading for Watson but hinged a trade on all cases being settled, the Dolphins believed that a 22-case settlement would result in a six-game suspension. The range of 6-8 games has generally been discussed by many in the league since the total number of cases against Watson hit 22.
There’s also a chance that evidence emerging from the pending lawsuits over the next few months could change Goodell’s mind about whether to use paid leave. It seems more likely based on his Tuesday comments that, in lieu of suspending him with pay, Goodell would just suspend Watson without pay.
Precedent exists for suspending a player without criminal charges. In 2010, Goodell suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games, later reduced to four, for similar charges. He had been sued in 2009 for rape, and he faced allegations of sexual misconduct a year later in Georgia. In 2017. Goodell suspended Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games based on alleged domestic violence, even though he was never arrested, charged, or sued.
Watson presumably will face some sort of discipline. Then again, if the league waits until the cases end to make any decisions and if Watson ends up winning each of the 22 pending cases, what would he be disciplined for? In the eyes of both sides of the justice system, he will have been found to have done nothing wrong.