HOUSTON – Late last week, when details of the NFL’s suspension stance in the Deshaun Watson investigation began circulating privately between the parties involved, a source in the middle of it all suggested that it was a simple information league wished publicly leaked. It was a grain of gold that would act as a public relations shield if Watson’s hearing before an independent disciplinary arbitrator did not unfold as the league office thought it should.
In case that happened, the source believed that the NFL wanted the public to know what it had been pushing for: a minimum suspension of one year.
“I think there’s a reason it’s coming around because that’s what the NFL wants,” the source told Yahoo Sports. “What if the arbitrator looks at everything and comes back with a 10-game suspension? If everyone knows the league wanted a one-year suspension, it gives the NFL the opportunity to just say, ‘We applied for a harsher penalty, but we’ll not come either. to undermine a collective bargaining process and this arbitrator in their first major case, either. ‘”
Less than 24 hours after the allegation was made on Friday, several outlets reported that Watson’s disciplinary hearing would take place on Tuesday. And the Wall Street Journal reported that the NFL was really seeking an indefinite suspension that would last at least a year, and then Watson could apply for reinstatement. Shortly afterwards, several outlets confirmed the report.
If the league wanted a year’s suspension expectation to be out in the public consciousness, it got the message forwarded.
Who is the arbitrator Sue Robinson?
What does this mean for independent arbitrator Sue Robinson, who is now under scrutiny when it comes to sorting out what the league has found in its investigation?
Unlike previous years when the NFL and NFL Players Association constantly argued behind the scenes about whether the league’s arbitration process was fair, Robinson’s position is the culmination of the latest collective bargaining agreement, and has an old steak between the league and the league. Not only was Robinson jointly elected by the NFL and connected to serve as a disciplinary arbitrator, she will also be paid for her service by both. And she comes with quite impeccable credentials, having served as a federal judge under the administration of George HW Bush in 1991. Ultimately, she served her federal appointment until 2017, overlapping five presidential administrations.
Now she’s sorting through the NFL’s Watson survey, which spanned nearly 16 months. As the hearings begin on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the process told Yahoo Sports that the league is expected to take a rather narrow approach to whether Watson violated the league’s personal behavior policy, although the extent still appears to be in some debate.
A source told Yahoo Sports that the NFL has focused on six women who accuse Watson of either sexual assault or sexual assault in their interactions with him. Another source said the number of women is five.
Both sources agreed on the one basic approach the NFL takes: League investigators wanted to advance their suspension based on the women with the most evidence available for presentation. This includes digital data in the form of text messages, personal messages on social media, payment records and other concurrent forms of evidence, which may also include conversations the prosecutors had with others in the immediate aftermath of their alleged encounters with former Houston Texans and current Cleveland Brown quarterbacks.
Why the NFL might not appeal Robinson’s ruling if there is less than a one-year ban for Watson
Robinson will also hear from what constitutes the legal “aces” when it comes to the attorneys who handle each side of the case, between the NFL’s special adviser on investigation, Lisa Friel, and the NFLPA’s often leaned on heavy hitter, Jeffrey Kessler, who has a wealth of experience in fighting against the league in labor and disciplinary negotiations.
Sources on both sides of the hearing seem to agree that there are three aspects that will be central when it is all decided:
Where will Robinson land on Watson’s suspension prospects once she has weighed all the NFL investigators’ evidence presented to her? Will she find the cases credible? Will the alleged incidents meet the standard for one or more violations of the Code of Conduct? And if so, what is the appropriate suspension for one or more violations?
Is there any precedent that Robinson believes is applicable in this case? Although the number of charges against Watson suggests that this is unique territory for a single player, it is not the league’s demand for a one – year suspension. Last year, NFL Wideout suspended Calvin Ridley for at least one calendar year after a gambling investigation. And in recent years, the league has also suspended players and coaches for various offenses after investigations (see: Saints’ bounty scandal, for example). What, if any, precedent plays for violations and lengths of suspension?
Perhaps most importantly for the NFL, will the league be willing to overturn Robinson’s decision with an appeal if it goes in a direction that does not overlap with the NFL’s penalty proposal?
The last issue is being talked about behind the scenes more than anyone may be aware of. Robinson represents a new and supposedly fairer addition to the league’s disciplinary process. She is jointly agreed and jointly appointed to be the voice that ultimately finds the appropriate and fair middle territory. But she is not the final judge if anyone is dissatisfied with her decision. Both sides can eventually appeal Robinson’s decision in the form of a suspension length, leaving the final decision to Goodell or whoever he may appoint to handle an appeal.
If it sounds like this is something that is ultimately in the hands of the league, it’s because it is – if the league wants to take it that way.
If Robinson does not agree with the NFL on this matter and gives a suspension of less than one year, will the NFL appeal? An appeal that would go to Goodell or his nominee?
As one source said on Sunday: “I honestly think the NFL will go with what Robinson decides, because I do not think they will step on her in her very first big decision. It would be a bad thing for the NFL to come out and say that this co-elected federal judge with a long history was basically wrong in his first crack at it, and then appeal it to Roger [Goodell] or whoever he chooses, for what would in principle be a unilateral final decision on discipline. If that’s what’s going on, then what’s the point of having a two – page disciplinary officer? What good is it if the NFL comes out and says that the federal referee they helped choose is somehow incompetent right away? ”
While that question may sound deep into the weeds of the Watson case, it may play a bigger role in what’s going on this week than people acknowledge. That may also be the reason why the NFL may have wanted the proposal for a one-year suspension in the public sphere.
Now that it is, the league has an opportunity to accept Robinson’s final decision, but also convey to the public that it still thought a harsher punishment was worthy. Ultimately, it can be a middle ground the NFL can live with.