On Monday, Judge Sue L. Robinson found, as to the factual allegations against Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, that he did what the league accused him of doing. Her decision to suspend Watson only six games arose from separate considerations.
Specifically, she concluded that Watson engaged in a “non-violent sexual assault.” And she found, based on past precedent, that a non-violent sexual assault does not justify the kind of punishment the league sought.
At page 13 of her ruling, Judge Robinson writes that “prior cases involving non-violent sexual assault have resulted in discipline far less severe than what the NFL proposes here, with the most severe penalty being a 3-game suspension for a player who has been previously warned about his conduct.”
That player is, we’re told, Saints quarterback Jameis Winston. He was suspended three games to start the 2018 season, for touching an Uber driver “in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” Winston’s suspension was the result of a negotiated compromise between the league and the NFL Players Association.
Judge Robinson concluded that the league is attempting to dramatically increase the punishment for non-violent sexual assault “without notice of the extraordinary change” in the league’s approach. The league’s position is that the rules aren’t changing, but that the facts have changed. At page 12, Judge Robinson explained that the league characterizes its recommended punishment of a one-year suspension as “unprecedented . . . because his conduct is unprecedented.”
Basically, the league’s position is that it hasn’t changed the rules. The league’s position is that it’s applying existing rules to a set of fact it never before witnessed.
As to Winston’s three-game suspension, he had only one victim. Watson had four. The NFL interviewed 12 of the persons Watson allegedly assaulted, but he was sued by 24 different people — and settled with all but one of them. Although Judge Robinson managed to ignore these basic realities, most will have a hard time doing so.
And some will have a hard time distinguishing “non-violent” sexual assault from sexual assault. Sexual assault is still sexual assault. If anything, it appears that clumsy efforts in the past by the league to be lenient as to some players prevented the league from getting the ruling it wanted from Judge Robinson as to Watson.
That said, the league secured the factual findings from Judge Robinson necessary to permit the Commissioner or his designee to impose a much higher punishment, if the NFL appeals the ruling. Again, she concluded that Watson did what he was accused of doing. At this point, it would be a surprise if the league doesn’t appeal the decision to Goodell, and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t increase the suspension.