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Deshaun Watson’s case not solely in Goodell’s hands

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Deshaun Watson won’t be going on the NFL commissioner’s exempt list while the league investigates 22 civil lawsuits pending against the Cleveland Browns quarterback. Instead, any suspension or fine for Watson — if the NFL believes punishment is warranted — will be settled at the conclusion of the league’s ongoing probe.

But there’s a sizable change awaiting Watson that stems from the collective bargaining agreement renewed in 2020: Commissioner Roger Goodell won’t be the person determining if Watson violated the personal conduct policy.

According to a source familiar with the league’s process under the new CBA, that decision is expected to be placed in the hands of former U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson, who has been chosen by the NFL and NFL Players Association to act as an impartial arbitrator in disciplinary cases like Watson’s. Goodell briefly referenced the policy change Tuesday while he was discussing the Watson probe during his closing remarks at the league’s annual spring meetings.

Prior to the new CBA, Goodell had the ability to unilaterally suspend players but the league ultimately chose any appeals officer.

BEREA, OHIO - MARCH 25: Quarterback Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns listens to questions during a press conference at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on March 25, 2022 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

Deshaun Watson is facing civil lawsuits and a league probe over alleged sexual misconduct. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

Here’s how NFL’s new disciplinary process can work in Deshaun Watson’s favor

That’s a sizable change for players, and the NFL’s probe into Watson appears to be the highest-profile case to go through the new system.

“We now have, obviously, at least resolution from the criminal side of [Watson’s legal cases],” Goodell said Tuesday, referring to a pair of Texas grand juries that declined to indict Watson on criminal sexual misconduct charges earlier this month. “There [are] still civil charges that are going on. So our investigators hopefully will have access to more information. That will be helpful in getting to the conclusion of what are the facts and was there a violation of the personal conduct policy. But that determination will be made by a joint disciplinary officer that was established by the NFLPA and the NFL. She will make that decision when the facts are all in. We’ll see. There’s no timeframe on that.”

While the process is set up to send cases to an independent arbitrator, the change favors Watson in at least one sense: The league no longer has the sole ability to determine whether a personal conduct violation occurred. Instead, the NFL must come to its own determination and then have a third party weigh the evidence and testimony collected by the league and NFLPA, at which point judgment is rendered.

Once that happens, Watson’s disciplinary scenarios could go like this:

  • If the NFL determines no personal conduct policy violation occurred, he faces no discipline and moves on.

  • If the independent arbitrator determines no personal conduct policy violation occurred, Watson faces no punishment and moves on. Per the CBA, the NFL cannot appeal this decision from the arbitrator.

  • If the independent arbitrator determines a personal conduct violation occurred, the arbitrator can ultimately determine the punishment for the infraction. If the NFL disagrees with the punishment, the league can appeal it to Goodell, who ultimately has a significant measure of power over the process once it’s agreed that a violation took place.

What this means is that Watson’s future will first rest in the hands of an arbitrator. After that, if it’s found that a violation of the personal conduct policy occurred, his punishment will ultimately rest in the hands of the NFL and Goodell.

Roger Goodell explains why Watson won’t go on commish exempt list

Watson’s potential suspension — or any other possible elements of punishment — is unlikely to be hashed out anytime soon. Instead, the only clarity provided Tuesday was that Watson won’t be going on the commissioner’s exempt list, which is effectively a form of paid leave during a criminal investigation.

Watson was eligible to go on the commissioner’s exempt list last season as the Houston Police Department sorted through complaints against him, but the league was never forced to take that step after Watson and the Houston Texans effectively agreed to his benching during the entirety of the 2021 season. Now he won’t face the prospect of the exempt list in 2022, either.

“The civil cases were in play over the last year,” Goodell said Tuesday. “The only thing that’s changed is the criminal element has been at least resolved, and that was an important element in the context of the commissioner exempt list as discussed with the Players Association. … If the criminal [complaints] had proceeded, that more than likely would have triggered the commissioner exempt. 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 more than likely [will] trigger some kind of discipline in some fashion.”

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