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Deshaun Watson to sit out 11 games and pay $5 million in sexual misconduct case

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A new NFL season will begin in three weeks without one of the league's best young quarterbacks. The NFL announced today that Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns is suspended for the first 11 games of the regular season and fined $5 million. More than 20 women have accused Watson of sexual assault and misconduct during massage sessions, and the punishment increases Watson's original six-game ban, which the NFL appealed. NPR's Tom Goldman joins me now. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Tom, is this a win for the league, given that the NFL was not satisfied with that original six-game suspension?

GOLDMAN: Yes and no - and let's take the no first. Any time there's a highly publicized personal conduct case against one of its players, the NFL suffers. And since the infamous Ray Rice case in 2014, when the former running back punched his fiancee, captured on video, the league has at times bungled its way through these cases. There's often public outrage. There was with Watson, too. The original six-game suspension was criticized for not being enough, especially after the special judge who handed it down said Watson's behavior was egregious and predatory.

SUMMERS: OK. So that's the no, but what about the yes? Why is this a win for the NFL?

GOLDMAN: Well, the six-game ban grew to 11, even though the NFL wanted a season-long ban. And league commissioner Roger Goodell says the $5 million fine is significant. Originally, Watson was going to lose 345,000 in salary for his suspension without pay - not much for someone who signed with Cleveland for 230 million guaranteed - but now he'll lose over 600,000 in salary and that 5 million fine on top of that.

SUMMERS: OK. And so what have we heard from Deshaun Watson about this new development?

GOLDMAN: Well, today he spoke with reporters for about 10 minutes after the sanction was announced. Probably the most significant thing he said is that he still says he did not do what roughly two dozen female massage therapists said he did during his time with the Houston Texans. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESHAUN WATSON: Well, I've always stood on my innocence and always said that I've never assaulted anyone or disrespected anyone, and I'm continuing to stand on that. But at the same time, I have to continue to push forward with my life and my career.

GOLDMAN: Now, last week, Watson publicly apologized, saying he was truly sorry, quote, "to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation." He was asked today how he squares that apology with the fact that he says he's innocent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What are you apologizing for?

WATSON: For everyone that was affected about this situation. There was a lot of people that was triggered.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But not the women that accused you of this?

WATSON: I've apologized to all women.

GOLDMAN: OK, Juana. If you are confused, others are too. He says he's innocent, but he's sorry. Two Texas grand juries declined to charge him criminally. He did settle civil suits with all but one of his two dozen accusers. Now, Watson says he plans to tell his side of the story in more detail in the future.

SUMMERS: OK, and what have you heard from the leadership of the team - of the Cleveland Browns?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said the team will honor and respect the punishment, which represents an agreement between the NFL and the Players' Union. Haslam added this, and I'm quoting - "I think, in this country - and hopefully in the world - people deserve second chances. That's what we're going to do." He acknowledges some will say, well, you're doing that because Watson is the star quarterback, to which Haslam said, well, of course.

SUMMERS: OK. So 11 games - I am looking at the calendar here. When will Watson make his regular season debut?

GOLDMAN: His first game back is expected to be on December 4 - ironically, against the Houston Texans, the team he played for when the alleged misconduct happened.

SUMMERS: Wow. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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