As Cleveland Browns introduce Deshaun Watson, the QB defends himself against allegations

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal

BEREA — Deshaun Watson maintained his innocence Friday as the Browns presented him to their fan base as the new face of the franchise.

Two dozen women have accused Watson of sexual misconduct or sexual assault during massage appointments. Two grand juries in Texas decided March 11 and Thursday that Watson wouldn't be criminally charged, but he still faces 22 active civil lawsuits and a likely suspension from the NFL. The Browns acquired the star quarterback on March 18 in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans.

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"I understand the whole circumstances is very difficult, especially for the women's side of the fans in this community. I'm not naive to that. I know these allegations are very, very serious," Watson said during his introductory news conference at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. "But I've never assaulted any woman. I've never disrespected any woman. I was raised by a single parent mom, who has two aunties, who's a sister, and that's who raised me.

"I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone and everything around me. So I've always defended that, and I will continue to stand on that. I just want the opportunity to be able to show who I really am in the community and be hands on and help people and serve other people."

Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson listens to questions asked by members of the local media during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Watson, 26, said he has no regrets but couldn't discuss details about why he used so many massage therapists, citing an ongoing investigation. He added he understands "there's going to be a stain that's probably going to stick with me for a while," but "I've never done these things that these people are alleging."

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Watson said he does not intend to settle the civil lawsuits hanging over his head because he intends to clear his name as much as possible.

Asked why he should be believed instead of more than 20 women, Watson said, "I can't speak on what people's opinions are because everyone has their own opinions, but what I can continue to do is tell the truth, and that is I've never assaulted or disrespected or harassed any woman in my life. Like I said before, I was raised differently. That's not my DNA. That's not my culture. That's not me as a person. That's not how I was raised. For me, that's to continue to push forward and show people who I really am."

Watson was asked whether he would be open to undergo counseling.

"It’s hard for me to say the counseling part because I don’t have a problem," Watson said. "I don’t have an issue, and that’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning. This situation is definitely tough, and it’s very difficult.

"But me having a problem and going to counseling, I’m willing to talk to people about certain situations to make sure I’m not getting back in this. But like I said before, I’ve never assaulted anyone. I’ve never disrespected anyone. I’ve always been respectful. That’s what I’ve always stood on and who I am as a person."

Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson smiles as he takes a look at the jersey he will be wearing for the next five years during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Cleveland Browns brass stresses it's comfortable with Deshaun Watson

General Manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski accompanied Watson during the media availability and touted the research the team did on Watson.

Publicly discussing the March 18 trade for the first time, Berry called the vetting process of Watson "a five-month odyssey." He said the Browns did reference work on Watson by speaking to people who have known him during different phases of his life.

"We used independent investigative resources within the Harris County in Houston law enforcement community in order to get an unbiased and well-rounded and comprehensive perspective on the allegations," Berry said. "We didn't want to just be one-sided. We used third-party legal counsel that allowed us to really analyze all the information that we were able to collect en masse."

The Browns did not reach out to the 22 women suing Watson, their attorney, Tony Buzbee, told ESPN on March 20. 

"We were advised by our attorneys, we were advised against reaching out directly to the 22 women out of concern that it would be considered interfering with the criminal investigation, and it's this among several other reasons that made it important for us to use independent investigative resources that were unbiased and comprehensive so that we could get a full picture and full perspective of the criminal and civil cases," Berry said. "It was through this time and through this work and what we learned about Deshaun the person, what we learned about the civil and criminal proceedings and obviously working through due process and legal process that got us comfortable with Deshaun the person."

Berry would not directly answer whether the investigators the Browns hired spoke to the women. Later, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam indicated via Zoom those investigators did not speak to the women.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) walks off the field before a game against the Los Angeles Rams at NRG Stadium.

When Berry was asked for his message to fans affected by sexual assault or those who think the trade for Watson is wrong and have sworn off rooting for the Browns, he stammered and paused for several seconds before answering.

"I would tell you that we’ll never fully be able to walk in the shoes of individuals who have been affected by sexual assault," Berry said. "That is something that we thought about a lot as we went through this process, understanding what the reaction would be. That’s something that weighed heavily on me. We empathize with that emotion. We empathize with that sentiment.

"And at the same time, we also do feel good about the work that we did as we vetted this transaction. We do have confidence and faith in Deshaun as a person. That did weigh heavily in the decision, but between the information we were able to gather, working through due process, working through the legal process, we do think that this is a decision that as it’s evaluated over the long run, will be something that is positive for our organization.

"We totally respect and totally empathize with those sentiments right now, totally understand that there are people who are not comfortable with the transaction right now. But again, we followed our information, we feel good about Deshaun as a person and we think he’s going to do a lot of positive in the community."

Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, takes questions from local media during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Stefanski was asked if he has talked to his wife about the trade.

"I think for all of us, it’s difficult, it’s hard," Stefanski said. "This is not easy, and I certainly have sincere empathy for anybody who’s a victim of sexual abuse in any way. These are hard, hard conversations. Just like Browns fans and my family, it’s something that you talk about. Those are uncomfortable conversations that are hard, but I think there’s growth that comes out of those conversations.

"Certainly I think there’s a positive that can come out of this with those conversations. As it relates to Deshaun, I think Deshaun’s ready to make a positive impact on this community. I can tell you just with my time spent with Deshaun in the past few days and getting to know him and getting to know this person, I’m looking forward to this community getting to know this person."

Berry said there have been conversations about the decision to trade for Watson between the club's leadership and the women who work for the Browns.

"We've talked a lot about building a diverse group within the organization and bringing all the perspectives to the table," Berry said, "and that's certainly something that we did with this decision as well."

Does Berry believe Watson is innocent of wrongdoing?

"We feel very confident in Deshaun the person," Berry said. "We have a lot of faith in him, and we believe that as he gets into the community and our organization, he’s going to make a lot of impact."

FILE- In this Dec. 13, 2020, file photo, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson walks off the field after warm ups before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Chicago.  On Friday, April 9, 2021, a judge has ordered that the name of one of the 22 women who have filed lawsuits accusing Watson of sexual assault and harassment must be made public. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

Will Deshaun Watson play this year?

The first grand jury's ruling on March 11 kicked off the final sweepstakes between the Browns, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers for Watson's services as a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

Watson informed the Browns on March 17 he would not waive the no-trade clause in his contract to play for Cleveland. However, he changed his mind the next day and chose the Browns, who gave him a five-year deal worth $230 million fully guaranteed. The contract set a record for the most guaranteed money on a single contract in NFL history.

"Actually, [my decision] had nothing to do with the contract," Watson said. "I didn't know about the contract until I told my agent that I wanted to come and be a Cleveland Brown. That was secondary. That was after the fact."

Why did he initially rule out the Browns?

"It wasn't necessarily a turn down," Watson said. "I think the media was kind of rushing me to make a decision, and I wasn't comfortable with making that right decision. So the news gets out and things like that, but for me, I knew that Cleveland was the best situation from a football standpoint and just for a community and family atmosphere."

The final terms of the blockbuster trade appeared Monday on the NFL transaction wire. The Browns agreed to send three first-round picks (one in each of the next three drafts), a 2023 third-round selection, a 2022 fourth-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round choice to the Texans for Watson and a 2024 sixth-round selection.

Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson reacts as members of the media ask questions about the 22 active civil suits against him during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

The Browns have been in contact with the NFL about a potential league suspension for Watson, Berry said.

"We've had an open line of communication with the NFL and will cooperate with the investigation as appropriate," Berry said. "They have their own process that they have to work through. We'll cooperate with that. We'll work with them, and when they render a decision, we'll obviously respect it."

Standard NFL contracts contain language that voids guaranteed money in the event of a suspension. ProFootballTalk.com reported on March 18 Watson's deal protects him from having guarantees void or from owing any bonus money back to the Browns if he were suspended stemming from the existing allegations.

Berry was asked whether Watson's contract is fully guaranteed, even if the player were suspended.

"I won’t go into all the specifics with the contract," Berry said, "but we do have our language in the contract that does offer, I would say, typical club protections."

If Watson is not available to play when next season begins in September, Jacoby Brissett is positioned to start at quarterback. The Browns agreed to a contract with Brissett on March 19 and announced Friday he signed.

In September 2020, Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension with the Texans. Yet Watson requested a trade from Houston coming off a 4-12 season in January 2021, months before the allegations of lewd behavior became public knowledge.

"The biggest thing was I think at the time we were just both going in different directions," Watson said of asking the Texans to trade him. "So for me to be able to accomplish the things that I want to do, we started out doing it privately with my agency, then it led to the whole big situation. It was a time for both of us to kind of part ways."

Now Watson has a new NFL home, off-field baggage and all.

"I think that this was the perfect situation for me to have a fresh start, go win some Super Bowls and move forward," he said.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson drops back to pass during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com.