'He doesn’t have a lot of moves to make': Six questions in the Deshaun Watson lawsuits
Deshaun Watson’s attorney finally decided to come right out and say it.
All of these women are lying — all 22 of them, according to a statement released Monday by the attorney, Rusty Hardin.
Since March 16, each had filed a lawsuit against Watson that accused the NFL quarterback of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 or early 2021. After previously denying the allegations in broad terms, now Watson and Hardin are specifically saying each is false, driven by their desire for a “money grab,” according to documents his legal team filed Monday.
But this strategy comes with risks. Legal experts say it tests the limits of plausibility and shows just how difficult this case has been for his attorneys to defend in the court of public opinion. Instead of providing reasonable explanations for what happened, experts said sometimes Watson’s legal team even added fuel to the controversy when trying to fight for him.
“If it’s a chess game, he doesn’t have a lot of moves to make,” said David Ring, an attorney in Los Angeles who has represented sexual assault survivors.
Hardin has tried a few big ones so far. Besides saying all the women are lying, Hardin has said there were “sometimes consensual encounters." He said Watson had sought so many new massage therapists because of his hectic schedule and the restrictions of COVID-19. His law firm even released a list of 18 other massage therapists who said Watson “never made them feel uncomfortable.”
Yet those strategies have been questioned by legal analysts: Doesn’t that imply Watson paid for sex acts with strangers after arranging for their massage services? And why would a wealthy famous athlete seek such services from so many strangers on social media?
These and other questions are all at play now as Watson faces investigations by Houston police and the NFL. The analysts contacted by USA TODAY Sports broke down six big ones here:
Are 22 women lying?
To believe that this is all a lie, an independent observer essentially would have to believe that 22 women who don’t know each other are coming forward to make up the same general story – that Watson exposed himself to them and caused them to touch his genitals during massage sessions. The alleged incidents happened in four different states.
All but one initially filed suit under the pseudonym Jane Doe but then added their names to their allegations recently after Hardin went to court to force the issue.
“You have 22 women coming forward all asserting the same thing,” said Ring, who is not involved the Watson case. “That’s a whole lot different than one or two. With one or two, Deshaun Watson can take them on and put up some defenses. But when you’ve got 22, it’s Harvey Weinstein all over again.”
Ring represents a woman who accused Weinstein of rape in 2013 – one of dozens of women who said the film producer engaged in inappropriate or criminal sexual conduct before he was sentenced last year in New York to 23 years in prison. Watson, 25, has not been arrested or charged with a crime as the police investigation continues with some of the women cooperating.
And they’re all out for money?
Former NFL star Kellen Winslow II said it was a money grab before he was convicted of rape and other sex crimes against five women. Comedian Bill Cosby’s attorney made a similar argument before Cosby was convicted of sexual assault.
In this case, the plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages, which is typical in civil lawsuits. Watson’s attorneys still risk backlash for recycling the old sexist trope that women readily lie about such serious allegations to score some cash. After the Weinstein case and the rise of the #MeToo movement, it’s also a difficult story to sell about this many women, experts said.
“This ugly stereotype serves as a powerful tool to undermine women's credibility,” said Deborah Epstein, law professor and director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown. “Accusations that women have fabricated assaults rarely, if ever, are substantiated. Instead, they serve to intimidate women out of coming forward to share the truth about harms they have suffered at the hands of powerful men.”
Some of this was consensual?
Many of these women say they didn’t know Watson before he contacted them on Instagram to arrange for their paid therapy. So if some of these encounters were consensual, as Hardin claims, this seems to imply a famous football player was either paying for sex acts with strangers or that he seduced strangers during professional paid therapy.
“It’s not an easy needle to thread because there’s not going to be a shred of evidence that these women were putting themselves out there for money for sex,” Ring said.
His attorneys still felt it was necessary to acknowledge as the women started coming forward by name.
“Watson had two choices regarding his defense,” said law professor Kenneth Williams of South Texas College of Law Houston. “First, he could claim that they were all professional massages and nothing sexual happened. Problem is that's hard to believe since he's hired 40 masseuses. Second, he could claim, as he has, that some were sexual but that everything that happened between he and the accusers was consensual.”
Why so many masseuses?
On March 31, Watson’s legal team sent an e-mail to the news media that listed 18 other therapists who said Watson never made them uncomfortable. Besides not proving anything about those who said otherwise, this information fueled an awkward question about Watson’s personal habits: Who needs that many masseuses?
Add those 18 women to the 22 who are suing him, and that’s 40 he sought for massage therapy. Some of these women weren’t even licensed massage therapists.
“Why risk exposing yourself to so many new people outside your circle?” said Daniel Lust, a sports attorney in New York. “I go to the same barber every time. … The numbers are alarming, and I don’t think there’s an easy way to explain them.”
Watson’s team gave several reasons for the frequent massages he sought on Instagram.
►Because of the kind of player he is on the field, he needs therapy on certain parts of his body.
“Everything that he described about the areas that he needed massaged was extremely important for him to be the escape artist that he is when he’s in the pocket,” one of Watson’s attorneys, Letitia Quinones, said April 9.
►It was because of his busy schedule and COVID-19 restrictions. “You have to remember the landscape and the availability of all of these things changed for 2020” during the pandemic, Hardin said.
►And it was because Instagram was where the women were advertising their services. “What is the purpose of advertising on Instagram if I can’t come to you as a result of your advertisement?” Quinones asked.
The alternate explanation appears simpler if you believe the women, Ring said – that Watson “enjoyed having women that he did not know come give him a massage, and many times, he would try to turn it into some kind of sexual activity.”
Was it extortion or negotiation?
In court documents filed Monday, Hardin’s team stated that the first plaintiff, Ashley Solis, set off this avalanche with mischaracterizations that became “a prototype for the assembly line of similar allegations.” All of the women then hired the same attorney, Tony Buzbee. At least some sought money from Watson before filing suit, according to documents from Watson’s legal team.
Hardin described the situation earlier this month as a “new model for extortion.”
But others say this is just the normal course of negotiation in a civil dispute involving attorneys. And they point to e-mails provided by Hardin’s legal team as supporting evidence.
On April 6, Hardin’s firm even released e-mails showing that Solis’ attorneys made a $100,000 demand from Watson before Solis filed suit. One of the e-mails also showed that Watson’s representative at the time was open to paying her a “reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation.”
In another case, a different plaintiff asked Watson to pay her $30,000 for her silence, according to Watson’s attorneys. They said she confirmed the encounter was consensual and wanted a copy of the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) she and Watson had signed because “she did not want people in her industry to know she had provided oral sex to her massage client.”
Such revelations didn’t exactly quiet the storm facing Watson, however. Lust said the release of the settlement negotiation e-mails and the list of 18 other therapists who vouched for Watson was designed by his attorneys to “calm the noise” but instead “fueled the fire” against him.
“It was odd that his attorney would claim that Ms. Solis is lying because she discussed a monetary settlement before filing the lawsuit, which ignores the fact that parties frequently discuss settlements before and during litigation,” said Williams, the law professor. “Also odd is the fact that he insisted on non-disclosure agreements. Who does that for an innocent massage?”
Why did the women not initially go to police?
One of the biggest questions about the plaintiffs and their credibility is why they didn’t go to the police at first and instead went to a plaintiffs’ attorney. To Watson’s team, this shows they were more interested in money than justice.
“While the sheer number of accusers makes it hard to believe that all 22 are lying, they still will have a credibility problem in that they didn't report his alleged misconduct to the police until after they filed lawsuits,” Williams said.
Ring, who has represented abuse survivors, said there’s a good reason for this. It started with one massage therapist who didn’t know about all the others. If one person went to police without any hard evidence, that goes nowhere with police “99 out of 100 times,” Ring said.
Going to a plaintiffs’ attorney instead led to her lawsuit becoming public, which led to more women coming forward.
Buzbee has “now brought forward over 20 women who say the same thing happened to them, who otherwise they never would have found each other,” Ring said. “The police were not going to have a big press conference saying, 'Hey we need all these women to come forward.’ They weren’t going to do that. So it kind of worked out for them to go to the lawyer, who then knew how to generate enough publicity to find other victims.”
By the same token, Ring said Watson “made a fatal mistake” by not negotiating or settling these cases before they became public.
“No one ever would have known about these, and none of these other women would have come forward probably,” Ring said. “But (Watson) said, 'I’m not settling these cases. Bring it on.’ And now he’s facing 22 of them.”