The N.F.L. has changed its personal conduct policy, expanding the offenses that warrant more serious penalties to include sexual assault “involving threats or coercion” and including “a pattern of conduct” and “offenses that involve planning” as factors that could increase punishment.
These changes come one year after a disciplinary officer cited limitations of the league’s policy in issuing initial discipline to Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was accused of sexual misconduct and harassment by more than two dozen women. The additions would allow the league to make a stronger disciplinary response to players or other employees who engage in behaviors like those Watson was accused of by women who said he purposely touched them with his penis and coerced sexual acts without their consent during massage appointments.
Watson, 27, denied the accusations. He was not charged criminally and has settled 23 of the 26 lawsuits filed against him; one was withdrawn (“in light of privacy and security concerns,” according to a court filing) and two others are still active.
The N.F.L. made the changes, which were viewed by The New York Times, in response to the judgment issued last year by Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge who oversaw Watson’s disciplinary hearing, according to three high-ranking league or team officials with direct knowledge of the policy’s revising. They spoke under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
“We annually review our policies and programs with an eye toward continuous improvement based off previous experiences,” Brian McCarthy, an N.F.L. spokesman, said Monday in a statement. The players union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Robinson suspended Watson for six games but wrote in her 16-page decision that the league’s guidelines limited her authority to prescribe a stricter penalty for conduct that she called “predatory” and “egregious.” The N.F.L., which had sought an indefinite ban for Watson, appealed her ruling. The sides then agreed to a settlement in which Watson was suspended for 11 games during the 2022 season, fined $5 million and required to participate in a treatment program.
Robinson was the first third-party disciplinary officer to hear a case since the role was created in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. She agreed with the league’s contention that Watson had committed multiple violations of the conduct policy, but said its recommendation of a season-long ban overstepped the conduct policy in place at the time.
Robinson in particular pointed to the distinction that the league’s policy — which was rewritten nearly a decade ago, after the league faced backlash over its handling of Ray Rice’s physical assault of his partner — appeared to make between physically violent and nonviolent offenses. In order to issue more severe penalties for what she called nonviolent sexual conduct, Robinson wrote that the league needed to give fair notice to its players.
Previously, the policy prescribed a six-game baseline suspension without pay for first-time offenders who used physical violence, including domestic violence and sexual assault “involving physical force.” Now, sexual assault “involving threats or coercion” has been added to the group of offenses that carry these more serious consequences. A second violation of these offenses would result in banishment from the league.
The revised policy also states that the third-party disciplinary officer who first reviews potential player conduct violations has the discretion to impose stricter penalties on players, including an indefinite suspension, “for other types of prohibited conduct.”
This year’s version of the policy was distributed to N.F.L. players when they reported to training camp last week.
Many state laws now include coercion as a means for an assault, including those in Texas, where most of the accusations against Watson were made, as do the player conduct policies for M.L.B. and the N.B.A. The #MeToo movement spurred a greater awareness of the power and control dynamics that can create nonphysical pressure to submit to a sexual act, experts said.
“Sexual assault is not always paired with physical violence, especially when it comes from someone who has a lot of power and prestige and money,” said Juan Carlos Areán, a program director for the nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence. “They can use all of those things to abuse someone else, sexually or otherwise.”
Many of the women who made claims against Watson described being scared or intimidated because of either his physical stature or the impact he could have on their business as a high-profile client. The league wrote in its brief to Robinson last summer that its investigation showed that Watson “used his status as an N.F.L. player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.”
Naming specific behaviors, such as coercion, in a conduct policy can play an important role both in breaking down misconceptions of what sexual violence looks like and in helping people understand the range of behaviors that can be harmful, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied sexual violence prevention.
“Given that the majority of sexual abuse does not end up being prosecuted in a legal context, having institutional or employment-based consequences that are more broad to deal with inappropriate sexual behaviors is a positive thing,” Jeglic said. She added: “The more that we are aware, the more we are going to hopefully prevent this from happening in the first place.”
During the N.F.L. off-season, league office staff worked to revise the conduct policy in consultation with Todd Jones, special counsel for conduct, and Lisa Friel, special counsel for investigations. The changes were then approved by the league’s conduct committee, of which Dee Haslam, a Browns co-owner, is a member, and were issued as part of the player handbook.
The N.F.L. did not have to negotiate these changes with the players’ union because the labor deal and the N.F.L. constitution give the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, the authority to define and penalize conduct detrimental to the league. The conduct policy for league employees and other club employees, which was released separately, mirrored the changes.