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The NFL’s Deshaun Watson investigation is officially in the home stretch.
Commissioner Roger Goodell closed the league’s spring meetings Tuesday and said there is no timeline for a decision on Watson’s future, but that the end of the league’s investigatory process is near. The news comes on the day that an interview with two of the 22 Watson accusers alleging sexual misconduct in civil lawsuits is set to air on HBO's "Real Sports," personally detailing their allegations against the Cleveland Browns quarterback and expressing disgust at his recent $230 million contract.
“I think we’re nearing the end of the investigative period,” Goodell said Tuesday. “Then it will be handled by our disciplinary officer.”
NFL investigators interviewed Watson for three days last week and could circle back one more time as they conclude the probe. League officials have interviewed “more than half” of the 22 women who have litigation pending against Watson, a source familiar with the investigation told Yahoo Sports.
As part of that process coming to an end, the findings of the investigation will go to former U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson, who is the independent arbitrator tapped by the NFL and NFL Players Association to render a decision on player violations of the personal conduct policy. It will be Robinson who ultimately decides whether Watson violated the policy, as well as if a suspension would be applicable. If Robinson decides Watson did not violate the policy, he will be free to play. If it’s determined a violation occurred, Robinson’s decision on a suspension length can be appealed by either the NFL or the NFLPA. Both of those appeals would go to Goodell, effectively rendering him the final say on the length of any suspension.
Aside from that process, two of the plaintiffs suing Watson in civil court — along with their lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who represents all 22 women in the cases — are moving into a more public forum with their "Real Sports" interview on Tuesday night. Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes both spoke with HBO about their alleged experiences with Watson during massage sessions, relating the graphic accounts that also appear in the civil court filings. Solis, who is expected to be one of the first to have her case go to trial in March, was the first woman to come out publicly about her interactions with Watson. That included reading a statement at a news conference nearly one year ago.
As in her account in her lawsuit, Solis told "Real Sports" she ended her session with Watson after he allegedly touched her hand with his penis. She then related what she perceived to be an alleged threat from Watson before he left.
"He just said, 'I know you have a career to protect.' And 'I know you don’t want anyone messing with it just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.' To me, that's when I got really scared. … Because that sounded like a threat to me," Solis said.
Watson has denied that exchange took place. He has also repeatedly denied the claims made in the 22 lawsuits and said that three alleged acts of sexual assault described in the litigation were consenting sexual encounters initiated by the women after the massage sessions had ended.
Hayes recounted a similar massage session to Solis' in graphic detail and also said she was disturbed by Watson’s $230 million contract from the Browns, which was signed nearly one year after the 22 civil suits were filed and allegations had been made public.
"It was sick to me," Hayes said of Watson’s contract. "… I felt like he’s being rewarded for bad behavior."
Attorney Leah Graham, who is part of Watson’s defense team, also appeared on "Real Sports" and was asked why the public should believe Watson’s declaration of innocence versus the accounts and litigation of 22 women.
“It’s 22 women,” Graham said. “It’s one lawyer. There’s only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one. … As [Watson] testified in his depositions last week, yes, he has no regrets because he did nothing wrong. He did nothing wrong in these massages. And although — to your first question, 'How can he be innocent?' I think the real question is, 'What evidence is there of any guilt?'"
Where it concerns violations of the personal conduct policy, the NFL appears to be nearing that answer. As for the courtroom, multiple league and legal sources involved in the proceedings have said all 22 civil suits will be pushed to the other side of a mutually agreed-upon moratorium on legal proceedings, which is slated to close down a period from Aug. 1, 2022 to March 1, 2023.
That dead period means the question of civil guilt or innocence won’t be answered for at least another nine months.