HOUSTON — Late last week, as details about the NFL’s suspension stance in the Deshaun Watson investigation began circulating privately between parties to the case, a source halfway through suggested there was a single piece of information in the league searched publicly leaked. It was a nugget that would act as a public relations shield if Watson’s hearing before an independent disciplinary judge had not gone as the league office expected.
If that happened, the source believed the NFL wanted the public to know what they had been pushing for: A minimum suspension of one year.
“I think there’s a reason word of this is getting around, because that’s what the NFL wants,” the source told Yahoo Sports. “What if the referee looks at everything and comes back with a 10-game suspension? If everyone knows the league wanted a year-long suspension, it gives the NFL an opportunity to simply say, “We sought a tougher sentence, but we’re also not going to undermine a collective bargaining agreement and that umpire in their first major case, either.” ‘”
Less than 24 hours after this allegation on Friday, multiple outlets reported that Watson’s disciplinary hearing would take place on Tuesday. And the Wall Street Journal reported that the NFL is indeed seeking an indefinite suspension that would last at least a year, after which Watson could seek reinstatement. Shortly thereafter, several outlets confirmed the report.
If the league wanted this one-year suspension expectation to reach public awareness, the message was passed.
Who is the referee Sue Robinson?
What does this mean for independent referee Sue Robinson, who is now under scrutiny when it comes to clarifying the league’s investigation?
Unlike years past, when the NFL and NFL Players Association constantly bickered behind the scenes over whether the league’s arbitration process was fair, Robinson’s position is the culmination of the latest collective bargaining agreement that settles an old beef between the league and the union . Not only was Robinson selected jointly by the NFL and the union to be the disciplinary judge, she is paid by both for her service. And she has fairly unimpeachable credentials, having earned a federal judgeship under the George HW Bush administration in 1991. Ultimately, she served as a federal judge until 2017, overlapping in five presidential administrations.
Now she’s sorting through the NFL’s Watson investigation, which spanned nearly 16 months. As hearings begin on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the process told Yahoo Sports that the league is expected to take a fairly narrow approach when it comes to whether Watson violated the league’s personal conduct guidelines, although the scope is still in seems to be some debate.
A source told Yahoo Sports the NFL has focused on six women who have accused Watson of either sexual misconduct or sexual assault in their interactions with him. A second source said the number of women was five.
Both sources agreed on the one basic approach the NFL is taking: League investigators wanted to advance their suspension push based on the women with the most available evidence. This includes digital data in the form of text messages, personal messages on social media, payment records and other contemporaneous evidence, which could also include conversations prosecutors had immediately after their alleged encounters with the former Houston Texans and with other current Cleveland Browns quarterbacks .
Why the NFL might not appeal Robinson’s verdict if Watson is suspended for less than a year
Robinson will also hear from the legal “aces” when it comes to the attorneys handling both sides of the case, between NFL Special Investigative Counsel Lisa Friel and often-leashed NFLPA heavyweight Jeffrey Kessler, who has a has a wealth of experience fighting the League in labor and disciplinary negotiations.
Sources on both sides of the hearing seem to agree that there are three aspects that will be crucial once everything is settled:
After weighing all the evidence presented to her by NFL investigators, where will Robinson end up on Watson’s suspension prospects? Will she find the cases credible? Do the alleged incidents meet the standard for one or more violations of the Personal Conduct Policy? And if so, what is the appropriate suspension for one or more violations?
Is there any precedent that Robinson believes applies in this case? While the number of allegations against Watson suggest this is unprecedented territory for a single player, the league’s push for a year-long suspension is not. Last year, the NFL suspended Calvin Ridley for at least a calendar year following a gambling investigation. And in recent years, following investigations, the league has also suspended players and coaches for various offenses (see for example: Saints bounty scandal). What precedent, if any, comes into play for the violations and suspension lengths?
Possibly most important to the NFL, will the league be prepared to essentially overturn Robinson’s decision with an appeal if it goes in a direction that doesn’t overlap with the NFL’s proposed punishment?
The last issue is being talked about more behind the scenes than some might realize. Robinson represents a new and supposedly fairer addition to the League’s disciplinary process. She is mutually agreed upon and jointly appointed to be the voice that ultimately finds appropriate and fair middle territory. But she’s not the last referee when someone is unhappy with her decision. Either side may ultimately appeal Robinson’s decision as to the length of the suspension, leaving the final decision to Goodell or whoever he may appoint to handle an appeal.
If that sounds like this is ultimately in the hands of the league, that’s because it’s – if The league wants to take it that way.
If Robinson disagrees with the NFL in this case and awards a ban of less than a year, will the NFL appeal? An appeal that would go to Goodell or his designee?
As a source put it Sunday, “I honestly think the NFL will stick with Robinson’s decision because I don’t think they want to step on her in their very first big decision. It would be a bad look for the NFL to come out and say that this co-elected federal judge with a long track record was fundamentally wrong on her first try, and then appeal to Roger [Goodell] or whoever he chooses, because that would basically be a unilateral final decision on the discipline. If that happens, what’s the point of having a disciplinarian that two sides vote for? What’s the use if the NFL comes out and says the federal judge they helped pick is right off the bat incompetent?
While that question may ring deep in the Weeds in the Watson case, it could play a bigger role in what is unfolding this week than people realise. It could also be why the NFL wanted to go public with the proposal for a one-year suspension.
Now that that’s the case, the league has a chance to accept Robinson’s final decision, but also let the public know they still think a tougher sentence is worthy. Ultimately, this could be a middle ground the NFL can live with.