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Deshaun Watson will be suspended for 11 games after allegations of sexual misconduct

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, participates in Friday's preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fans booed him at TIAA Bank Field.
Mike Carlson
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Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, participates in Friday's preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fans booed him at TIAA Bank Field.

Updated August 18, 2022 at 2:29 PM ET

Deshaun Watson, the controversial Cleveland Browns quarterback accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct and assault, will be suspended for 11 regular-season games, the NFL announced Thursday.

Watson must also undergo a behavioral treatment program and pay a fine of $5 million, which will be used to establish a fund to support non-profit organizations across the U.S. that work to combat sexual assault and help survivors. The Cleveland Browns and the NFL will each contribute $1 million to the fund.

Dozens of women have accused Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. In total, he faced 24 lawsuits; all but one of those suits has since settled.

In a statement, Watson apologized for "any pain this situation has caused" and said he would take responsibility for his actions.

But in a news conference Thursday, Watson said he would "continue to stand on his innocence."

"I have to do what's best for Deshaun Watson at the end of the day. I know what happened. I was in those situations," he said. "Just because settlements and things like that happen doesn't mean that a person is guilty for anything."

Asked for whom he was apologizing if he believed he was innocent, Watson responded: "For everyone that was affected about the situation. There was a lot of people that was triggered."

A lengthy arbitration process between the NFL and its players' union had first resulted in a six-week suspension. But facing a wave of criticism that the punishment was too light, the NFL appealed the decision in pursuit of a longer suspension.

"Deshaun has committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL," the league's commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

Watson's 11-game suspension will begin in Week 1 of the regular season, which begins next month. He will return to the field on Dec. 4, when the Browns play the Houston Texans, Watson's former team.

Read on for more about the accusations against Watson:

What is the deal with Deshaun Watson?

Here's the summary: Watson was an exciting young quarterback drafted in the first round in 2017 by the Houston Texans. As the Texans' starter, he helped lead the team to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019. His own performance peaked in 2020 with 33 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a league-best 4,823 passing yards (though his team floundered at just 4-12 that season).

Then, in March 2021, a woman filed a lawsuit accusing Watson of sexually harassing her during a massage therapy session. Twenty-two more women filed subsequent lawsuits that spring, all accusing him of similar misconduct. (One lawsuit was dropped after a judge required the women to disclose their names.) Two additional suits were filed this summer.

Watson has denied all the claims.

The Texans chose to bench him for the 2021 season. During the off-season, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns even as the NFL's own investigation was ongoing. The 2022 preseason began earlier this month; the regular season begins in September.

What exactly is Watson accused of?

The lawsuits filed against Watson describe a strikingly similar pattern of behavior. Watson would hire a massage therapist for a massage session. The massages took place in a variety of locations, including spas, hotel rooms and Watson's home and office.

At some point during the massage, the lawsuits say, Watson would turn sexual: asking the women for sex, directing their hands to his groin, touching them with his penis. Two women say he orally penetrated them without their consent. Others say he ejaculated on them.

The number of massage therapists seen by Watson is much higher than the number represented by the lawsuits. The New York Times reported this summer that Watson had seen at least 66 massage therapists over a 17-month span from late 2019 to early 2021.

In addition to the 24 women who filed lawsuits, at least two filed criminal complaints. Other women hired by Watson during this period reported no issues during their sessions, and more than a dozen others filed statements of support for Watson.

"I never assaulted anyone," Watson said in June. "I never harassed anyone or I never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything."

Where do things stand with the lawsuits? Were there any criminal charges?

There are no current criminal investigations against him. In March, a grand jury in Harris County, where Houston is located, declined to bring charges for nine criminal cases; a second grand jury in neighboring Brazoria County also declined charges in a tenth case.

In June, Watson agreed to settle 20 of the 24 suits against him. One of the lawsuits had also named the Texans as a defendant for enabling Watson's behavior, including by providing him with nondisclosure agreements for massage therapists to sign; the team reached a settlement in July that covered 30 total women. This month, three of the remaining lawsuits were settled.

That leaves one ongoing lawsuit. A trial is currently expected in the spring of 2023.

What's the story with the Browns signing him?

After the first grand jury declined to charge Watson, the Browns signed the quarterback to a lucrative five-year $230 million deal, structuring his contract to minimize lost pay in the case of a suspension this season (which is near certain).

The team reportedly did not speak to any of Watson's accusers before signing him.

The Browns have been without a steady franchise quarterback for decades. Their most recent hope, Baker Mayfield, helped the Browns return to the playoffs after a 17-year drought. But he had battled a shoulder injury and an apparently poor relationship with team officials, and the Browns traded him to the Carolina Panthers in July.

The acquisition of Watson was already controversial when the team signed him in March. (More than 2,000 people made donations to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center as a way to charitably protest the signing.)

And the controversy hasn't let up over the months since: An HBO special that aired in May helped motivate two additional accusers to file lawsuits, and the Times investigation revealed that Watson's lawyer had been in regular contact with Harris County prosecutors in the months leading up to the grand juries.

As part of the suspension agreement, the Browns will contribute $1 million to the fund that will help support organizations that help survivors of sexual assault.

"I think in this country, and hopefully in the world, people deserve second chances, OK? I really think that. I struggle a little bit with, is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself?" said Jimmy Haslam, who owns the Browns with his wife Dee, in a news conference Thursday. "That's what we're going to do."

Will Watson play this season? How about in the future?

Yes, Watson will play this season. On Thursday, the NFL announced that it had reached an agreement with the NFL Players Association over Watson's punishment: He will be suspended for 11 regular-season games (along with the $5 million fine).

In other words, Watson will miss about two-thirds of the regular season.

The league and players union had agreed to use an arbitrator to decide on a punishment. This month, that arbitrator, a former federal judge, recommended a six-game suspension.

The NFL appealed that decision in an effort to suspend him for longer. League Commissioner Roger Goodell said the evidence called for a suspension of at least a year, calling Watson's conduct "predatory" and "egregious."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.