Cleveland Browns stick by Deshaun Watson with every new allegation. But will he ever play?

Amanda Garrett
Akron Beacon Journal

Three months before the Cleveland Browns play their season opener against the Carolina Panthers, it’s unclear if their superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson will take the field — for that game or any other, at least in the near future.

The Watson saga about money, power, sex and football continues to unfold as Watson this week settled 20 of the 24 lawsuits against him.

The Browns are sticking with the 26-year-old quarterback for now, despite a firestorm of local and national criticism.

Why, for example, would Watson meet with at least 66 different women for massages in a 17-month time span, as The New York Times first reported?

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Or why, as Watson conceded during a deposition, did he send an apology text to one of the women after leaving her “teary-eyed” during a massage?

And why did Watson give the owner of a spa who arranged some of his massages $5,000? Was it because he is a "nice person," as the spa owner said?

Watson has denied all the allegations against him, saying he has never assaulted or disrespected a woman.

Though two grand juries decided against indicting Watson on criminal charges, a Houston police detective who investigated 10 criminal complaints against Watson said he broke the law during massage sessions.

Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, with General Manager Andrew Berry, left, and coach Kevin Stefanski field questions during Watson's introductory press conference in Berea.

Detective Kamesha Baker told lawyers during a deposition for one of the civil cases that there was enough evidence to charge Watson with criminal indecent assault, sexual assault and prostitution in cases where money was exchanged and there was consensual sex.

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Baker said she met with a prosecutor handling one of the grand juries, but prosecutors never called her to testify. It’s unclear why. 

Who is defending Deshaun Watson, and what are the attorney's ties to the Browns?

Watson, who has never faced charges, hired Houston lawyer Rusty Hardin to defend him. Hardin, a former prosecutor, has long worked as defense attorney for the wealthy and well-connected, representing everyone from the wife of televangelist Joel Osteen to former MLB pitcher Roger Clemens.

Hardin also is no stranger to the Cleveland Browns. 

A decade ago, Hardin represented team owner Jimmy Haslam during a federal investigation of a $56 million fraud scheme at Pilot Flying J, the truck stop company owned by Haslam and his family. 

An FBI affidavit quoted an informant in the case who said Haslam and the company’s onetime president, Mark Hazelwood, were both in meetings where a scheme bilking small trucking companies out of rebates was discussed. Hazelwood and 17 former Pilot Flying J employees were ultimately convicted of fraud-related charges, but Haslam was never charged.

It’s never been clear whether Hardin and Haslam’s relationship may have impacted Watson landing in Cleveland. 

Who is Tony Buzbee, the lawyer representing the women suing Deshaun Watson?

All the women suing Watson are represented by Tony Buzbee.

Buzbee, 54, also is a high-profile Houston-based lawyer, along with being a property developer and politician. In 2010, he was featured on the cover of The New York Times magazine while he was representing dozens of people impacted by BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Both Buzbee and Hardin are skilled at litigating high-profile cases both inside a courtroom and out, with national media swirling. As Buzbee’s clients went onto a sports news television show and spoke emotionally about what they say Watson did to them, for instance, Hardin was chiding the media for failing to investigate the women, all of whom claim to be victims of sexual misconduct.

In March, when the Browns introduced Watson as their new superstar, the team’s front office clearly anticipated blowback.

What have Browns officials said about the situation?

Browns General Manager Andrew Berry tried to assure fans everything would work out, saying the team went on a five-month “odyssey” investigating Watson before becoming “comfortable” enough with him to offer him a contract.

Browns officials acknowledge, however, that they never reached out to any of the 22 women who were then suing Watson. 

When did Deshaun Watson last play an NFL game?

The last time Watson played an NFL game was Jan. 3, 2021, when he was still quarterback for the Houston Texans.

The Texans lost to the Tennessee Titans that day and finished the season out of the playoffs with a 4-12 record.

Watson missed the entire 2021 NFL season amid disagreements with the Texans' front office and the unfolding investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Now he’s with Cleveland, where owners invested $230 million in Watson believing he could one day lead the Browns to their first Super Bowl.

Yet the NFL investigation — which observers agree will almost certainly lead to Watson being suspended — continues. And even with Watson settling most of the cases against him, Browns fans remain frustrated and divided over whether they want Watson to be the face of their team.

Because of this, it’s still not clear who will be Browns quarterback when the regular season begins in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 11 — or when it ends against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 8.