Toward the end of the introductory news conference in March for his team’s new quarterback, the Cleveland Browns’ general manager, Andrew Berry, sat near a microphone with his arms crossed and publicly supported Deshaun Watson with carefully chosen words and without completely defending him.
The Browns had just traded three first-round draft picks and two other selections to the Houston Texans for Watson, betting the team’s immediate future on the quarterback. They had signed him to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract, the largest of its kind in N.F.L. history, even though more than 22 women were suing him, alleging sexual harassment or assault.
When asked if he thought Watson did anything wrong, Berry said, “We feel very confident in Deshaun the person, and we have a lot of faith in him.”
That faith is being tested as the Browns consider new revelations from accusers and new questions from fans about Watson’s conduct.
Two more women have sued Watson in the last week, bringing to 24 the number of plaintiffs who say he turned massages sexual without their consent, including purposely touching them with his penis and coercing sexual acts. Watson and his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, have been adamant that he did nothing wrong.
Adding to the public-relations crisis, Hardin said in a radio interview last week that “happy endings” were common at the end of massages, seemingly minimizing this practice despite his insistence that Watson never had sexual contact with a woman during a massage — only afterward, according to Hardin, and at the women’s suggestion on all three occasions.
And on Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Watson had met with at least 66 women for massages within a 17-month span, sometimes using hotel rooms and a nondisclosure agreement provided by his former team.
How have the Browns and Watson responded?
The Browns have declined to comment publicly on Watson’s status with the team. The N.F.L. is investigating whether he violated its personal conduct policy, and Coach Kevin Stefanski said on Wednesday that he would not comment while the investigation was continuing.
“I’m going to be respectful of the investigation, of the legal proceedings and let that play out,” Stefanski said.
Watson was present at Wednesday’s off-season workout, completing passes to teammates in an orange jersey and shorts, but was not made available to the news media. That day, he set his Twitter account to private, limiting his posts to his 1.4 million followers.
What action could the Browns take next?
The Browns’ options appear to be limited if they want to get out of their deal with Watson.
A person with direct knowledge of the deal said the contract had protective wording, similar to that in other players’ contracts, that allowed the franchise to void aspects of it for detrimental conduct that the team was unaware of when the agreement was signed. The person, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the Browns were unlikely to take action unless Watson was charged criminally.
Watson, 26, requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season, months after signing a four-year contract extension in Houston worth nearly $111 million guaranteed. Shortly thereafter, the first allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. He was on the Texans roster in 2021 but did not play a snap.
Berry said in March that the Browns decided to pursue Watson after third-party counsel completed an independent investigation that included interviewing references and law enforcement officials. When a Harris County, Texas, grand jury declined to charge Watson in connection with nine criminal complaints, the Browns, the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints entered the bidding for him. Cleveland announced the Watson trade soon after.
But it wasn’t until after Watson was signed that a second grand jury, in Brazoria County, Texas, declined to press charges against him. The Browns have not explained why they signed him when there was still a possibility he would be charged criminally.
The impact of the new lawsuits on Watson’s standing with the team is also unknown. Hardin said that his legal team had never heard of the 24th plaintiff until Monday, and it’s unclear whether Watson disclosed the potential of new legal actions to the Browns before signing.
If the Browns sought to trade Watson, he would need to waive the no-trade clause in his contract and sign off on his new destination, as he did when he left Houston. Regardless, a deal would be difficult to arrange, as many teams would be hesitant to take on his salary, and the majority of clubs have solidified their quarterback rooms in the draft and free agency.
Releasing Watson outright without a significant return would seem unlikely because of the lengths Cleveland went to acquire him and because the Browns have no long-term succession plan.
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The team excused its former starter, Baker Mayfield, from its off-season program as the front office seeks to trade him, and the current backup, the journeyman Jacoby Brissett, is not seen as a multiyear starter. The Browns’ best path forward, said Bill Polian, the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, is to wait for the N.F.L.’s final decision.
“They don’t have a choice,” Polian said. “The facts are what they are.”
At an N.F.L. meeting in Atlanta in May, Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league’s personal conduct investigation was “nearing the end” and that the process would soon be handed over to a disciplinary officer. The N.F.L. may discipline Watson regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits against him if it feels he violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
How have Browns fans responded?
Browns fans, denied the satisfaction of a championship since 1964, are displeased, if not close to mutiny.
“It’s just sickening,” said Robyn Lockner, 51, a lifelong Browns fan.
Lockner, who runs the Cleveland Browns Women’s Group on Facebook, said the allegations against Watson made being a Browns fan that much harder. “You’re smacking your female fan base in the face; that’s kind of what it felt like,” she said.
Cleveland’s public-relations headache intensified on Tuesday when the team — apparently coincidentally — invited fans on Twitter to participate in a question-and-answer session just minutes after The Times published its investigation. “We’re taking your #BrownsMailbag questions,” the invitation said.
After fans savaged the team in the replies, the Browns deleted the post.
For Lockner and many other fans, the Watson allegations are another chapter in a long history of anguish. Lockner described herself as “the biggest female fan out there”: She has a bus for tailgating, season tickets, Browns-themed living and dining rooms and a dog named Cleveland. Her entire flower garden is orange and brown.
“We’re not Browns fans for a certain player. We support the whole team and organization,” she said. “This signing made a lot of people question that. It’s very difficult as a woman to love and support the team you grew up with, that’s been a family tradition your whole life, when it just feels like you’re not being respected or taken seriously by the organization at all.”
Annastasia Meadors, a moderator of the Facebook group and Browns fan for 22 years, said in an interview, “Who wants a supposed sexual predator as a football quarterback star for their team? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“We are the laughingstock of the N.F.L.,” Meadors added.
Lockner said Watson could have delivered a trip to the Super Bowl for the Browns but hopes the team can find a way out of his contract.
“I love the team,” she said. “I can’t say I’m not going to support the Browns, that I’m not going to be a fan anymore, because one player doesn’t make the team. We have a ton of talent on this team. We’re going to get there. It’s just a shame we sold our soul to Deshaun Watson.”