The curious case of Deshaun Watson's March massage
The NFL never has investigated a case quite like Deshaun Watson’s.
Other NFL player conduct investigations typically have involved only a small number of incidents at most. By contrast, 22 women have sued Watson, accusing him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in four states.
That gives the league 22 cases to consider with the Houston Texans quarterback, who could be suspended based on the findings, regardless of whether he is charged with a crime after a separate investigation by the Houston police.
“It only takes one case to justify discipline,” said the NFL’s former counsel for operations and litigation, Jodi Balsam, now an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School. “So even if they can come to no determination after 20 cases, but in one case it’s a clear episode of some form of sexual assault or harassment, that’s enough for them to impose discipline. They don’t have to resolve every single factual dispute in every single case to justify discipline.”
So then which cases are the most problematic for him?
Two of the 22 lawsuits appear to be more serious than the others because they accuse him of sexual assault.
Another case stands out because of its timing.
The latter happened on March 5, according to a lawsuit filed by a massage therapist in Georgia. It could make Watson look really bad or really innocent, depending on the viewpoint, which raises another issue about the scale of the league’s investigation: Even if a case is not damning on its own, any could provide clues that add to the pile of evidence for or against his culpability.
In the March 5 case, the massage therapist's encounter is the most recent alleged incident described in the 22 lawsuits against Watson, with most of the rest accusing him of misconduct in 2020, allegations Watson has denied.
It also is the only one that came at a sensitive period in the timeline of cases. This was 11 days before the first woman went public with a lawsuit March 16, but just weeks after Watson was put on notice that he should not be in the habit of cruising for massages with strangers on social media.
Watson effectively was warned by his own sports agency, Athletes First, after another therapist in Texas, Ashley Solis, had attempted in February to resolve her own misconduct claim against Watson privately through attorneys out of court.
Before that, in mid-January, another woman spoke with Watson's marketing manager at Athletes First and asked for a settlement to keep quiet about her own encounter with Watson, according to the marketing manager, Bryan Burney.
Those attempts failed, and Watson then contacted the therapist in Georgia for a discounted $55 massage on Instagram in early March, according to her lawsuit. Watson’s attorney acknowledged in a court filing that Watson contacted the woman this way to “hire her for a massage.”
That can mean one of two things, according to the attorneys on each side:
Either the NFL star disregarded a warning about his behavior to continue a pattern of sexual misconduct, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents all 22 women. Or the therapist in Georgia is lying about what happened to get money from him, just like the other 21 women, according to Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin. The women seek compensatory damages in their lawsuits.
“For him to resume this pattern of behavior after litigation was pending, after a warning from his own support network … that pattern of behavior is at a minimum reckless,” Balsam told USA TODAY Sports, referring to Watson’s pattern of contacting strangers on social media for massages. “It also possibly indicates some kind of addictive or compulsive behavior here.”
Watson’s attorneys said Watson contacted massage therapists this way for various reasons: because that’s where they advertised – on Instagram – and because of his busy schedule and changes to it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watson, 25, had been in his native Georgia in late February to promote charity events, according to his social media accounts. In an Instagram post dated March 7, he posted a video about it, thanking those who helped.
“At a minimum Watson's conduct would seem to be extremely reckless in contacting the massage therapist … after being put on notice that another therapist was complaining about his conduct during a previous massage,” said Kenneth Williams, professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “This could undercut his defense, but he also might use it to claim that he didn't believe he hadn't done anything wrong or inappropriate with Solis.”
(USA TODAY Sports is identifying Solis because she has publicly addressed the allegations. Otherwise USA TODAY Sports does not name individuals who allege sexual crimes without their permission.)
In April, the agency that represents Watson referenced the settlement discussions with Solis in February.
“We believed then – and fully believe now – that Deshaun learned a lesson about putting himself in this type of situation by interacting with people he does not know,” said a statement released April 6 by Scott Gaffield, the general counsel of Athletes First.
So then why would he contact another massage therapist he didn’t know in Georgia weeks later?
Interacting with strangers online
Two women made settlement demands of Watson before March, according to Athletes First. The first did so in mid-January, when Burney spoke to the woman who was asking to be paid $30,000 in exchange for her "indefinite silence" about her alleged encounter with Watson, according to a written declaration from Burney released by Watson’s legal team March 23. But what exactly she wished to settle “was not clear to me,” Burney wrote.
Burney also wrote that the woman “confirmed that everything that occurred was consensual during her encounter with Deshaun.” Burney said a man purporting to be the women’s business manager then said the request is “not extortion. It’s blackmail.”
“I informed this individual that Deshaun would not be paying the $30,000 requested,” Burney wrote.
Watson’s legal team since has identified the woman as a massage therapist who said Watson contacted her on Instagram in December. The woman filed a lawsuit against Watson March 17 and is one of the two plaintiffs who accuse him of sexual assault.
The other woman who made a claim against Watson before March was Solis. She said Watson exposed himself to her and caused her to touch his genitals during a massage after he contacted her on Instagram in March 2020. She pressed her claim privately in February after hiring Buzbee, who said she was his only client at the time.
On her behalf, Buzbee’s firm engaged with Athletes First and demanded $100,000 from Watson to resolve Solis’ complaint and prevent her from going public with a lawsuit.
In response, Gaffield said he didn’t believe Solis’ claim and rejected that figure but said he was open to paying Solis a “reasonable settlement figure because we believe he can learn a lesson about having put himself in this situation,” according to e-mails from February released by Watson’s legal team.
Yet this “lesson” apparently then went unheeded by Watson. On March 3, Watson sent the massage therapist in Georgia a message via Instagram to express his interest in the $55 discounted massage, according to her lawsuit. They met on March 5, when she said Watson exposed himself to her and caused her to touch his genitals – a description of events that matches those of Solis and many other plaintiffs.
Gaffield declined additional comment on Friday and referred to his statement from April. That statement said: “We were willing to continue discussions on Deshaun’s behalf to explore ways to prevent a lawsuit and a public spectacle. But Mr. Buzbee informed us that he was unwilling to do so. We expect that this matter will be resolved in court.”
By itself, seeking massages from strangers on social media wouldn’t justify discipline, even after being warned about the risks involved as a celebrity athlete. But even if he did nothing wrong, and this is all a money grab, Watson apparently willingly walked into it again with another stranger from Instagram, despite the “lesson” in February.
In his defense, Watson’s legal team has depicted him as the victim of a scheme by multiple masseuses. Hardin previously said all their allegations “dumbfounded” Watson and that Watson’s reaction to them was that “this is insane.”
In a court filing submitted April 19, Hardin essentially argued that Solis sparked a gold rush of copycat lawsuits when she filed the first suit.
The Georgia woman filed suit March 22, less than three weeks after she said she met Watson and less than a week after Solis filed the first lawsuit against Watson March 16.
Hardin’s filing stated the Georgia woman since has destroyed evidence by deleting her Instagram account and that witnesses describe her as a “money grabber.”
How the NFL interprets the competing narratives is one piece of a process that could drag into 2022. The NFL likely will want the Houston police investigation to play out before deciding on any punishment. But the NFL doesn’t need criminal charges to remove Watson from action under its personal conduct policy.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can put a player on paid administrative “where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so” related to conduct that posed a danger to the safety or wellbeing of another person, according to the policy.
“The sheer number and scope of the claimants is remarkable, and the league has not dealt with anything like this in the past,” Balsam said. “But it has a process and it’s going to follow that process to the best of its ability.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org