As the NFL prepares to do something about the longstanding investigation of Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, some details have emerged regarding the extent of the review.
Friday’s article from Mark Maske of the Washington Post, which drew most of its attention for the suggestion that the league will start the formal disciplinary process by recommending a one-year suspension for Watson, also explains that the NFL, through Lisa Friel, interviewed “at least” 11 of the 24 plaintiffs represented by attorney Tony Buzbee, “along with other women.” Friel, per Maske, also reviewed “relevant available documents.” Also, and as previously known, Friel interviewed Watson over a total of four days in Houston.
It’s unclear why the other 13 plaintiffs weren’t interviewed. Two emerged only recently. Did the other 11 decline? Or did Friel decide that their accounts weren’t needed?
It’s also unclear who the “other women”? Two who made criminal complaints against Watson have not sued him. Eighteen massage therapists issued statements of support for Watson early in the process. Recently, Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times reported that Watson received private massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period.
The term “relevant available documents” could be extremely broad, from all text messages and social-media posts generated by Watson’s various massages to the deposition transcripts of everyone who has testified in the case to the civil complaints, the answers to the complaints, and any other paperwork created by the 24 lawsuits. Friel also may have asked attorney Rusty Hardin to give the league the “packet” that was sent to the Harris County prosecutor Johna Stallings for transmission to the grand jury. If it was good enough to get a grand jury to not indict Watson, Friel should be curious to see how the packet characterizes the case — especially if anything Hardin said conflicts with her own impressions based on a diligent review of the evidence.
It’s a lot of material to review. To be thorough, however, every document must be examined. Something that influences the final decision can be lurking anywhere. It’s one of the most basic realities of litigation that includes a vast array of documents. Someone must search the haystacks for the needles, without knowing that any needles are even lurking among the hay.
One thing that didn’t occur was that, as Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg told Mike Meltser in a recent podcast interview, neither the league nor the Browns contacted her. Both league and team would surely say that they didn’t do it because she couldn’t tell them anything about the grand-jury proceedings. But there’s always value in having a conversation. Even if she’s limited in what she can say to them on the record, the establishment of a good relationship with Ogg — starting from the launch of the process — possibly could have yielded some useful off-the-record guidance.
That’s how the world works. How various different forms of sausage get made. If Friel and Ogg (and/or Stallings) had established a relationship that resulted in the development of mutual trust, Friel could have finagled the truth as to why Watson wasn’t indicted. Maybe, as I believe, Ogg and Stallings suspected that Watson did something he shouldn’t have done, they believe it would be impossible to avoid the creation of “reasonable doubt” by Rusty Hardin and his legal team, and they deferred as a practical matter to other aspects of the justice system, whether through the civil lawsuits or, as Ogg told Meltser, the administrative process.
It’s still not known what the league will ultimately do. It’s unclear how thorough the league has been in investigating the situation. However, anything less than completely and totally thorough is not thorough enough, if the league wants anyone to believe that it wanted to make an accurate and clear and legitimate decision as to what Watson did or didn’t do, and as to what the consequences should or shouldn’t be.
The fact that more cases are being filed and more information seems to be surfacing makes it impossible, frankly, to know everything before making a decision. That’s why, in the end, the best decision could be to press pause on Watson’s playing career until the league knows everything that can be known about conduct that has led to 24 lawsuits, two more that will be filed, and possibly even more after that — especially if, for example, the belief that the league didn’t do enough about the situation becomes the catalyst for even more women to sue.