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How the NFL CBA will impact a potential Deshaun Watson suspension in 2022

Matt Johnson
Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is preparing for the 2022 NFL season amid uncertainty revolving around his availability for games. Currently facing 22 civil suits alleging sexual misconduct and assault allegations, he is being investigated by the NFL.

Many have viewed a suspension as inevitable. When the Browns acquired Watson, the franchise followed it almost immediately by signing veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett to serve as an insurance plan. Additionally, there is some belief that Cleveland could keep Baker Mayfield to serve as the starter if Watson is suspended.

The strongest indication of a potential Watson suspension is his contract. The Browns structured it so Watson would only receive a $1.035 million base salary in 2022 with a $44.96 million signing bonus. It’s outlined that way because any suspension withholds a player’s base salary for the number of games suspended, meaning Watson would only lose out on approximately $57,500 per game suspended.

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Below, we’ll examine why Watson is at risk of a multi-game ban and how the NFL collective bargaining agreement signed in 2020 will impact a potential suspension.

Can Deshaun Watson be suspended without criminal charges

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-Super Bowl Winning Coach and MVP Press Conference
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Watson secured a legal victory both before and after his trade to the Browns. On March 11, a Harris County grand jury decided not to indict the star quarterback on any of the nine criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct. A few days later, the grand jury in Brazoria County also declined to indict Watson on a 10th criminal complaint.

  • Deshaun Watson stats (2020): 4,823, 33-7 TD-INT, 112.4 QB rating, 4-12 record

It represented the final hurdle that teams wanted to be cleared before signing off on a deal. A day after the second ruling from a grand jury, the Browns introduced Watson for the first time at a press conference.

While the 26-year-old quarterback avoided criminal charges, that ruling is not directly tied to discipline from the NFL. Watson is still facing 22 civil suits with cases set to be heard in civil court in the coming months.

Watson can still be suspended if the NFL determines he violated the league’s personal conduct policy. In the first line of the league’s policy regarding behavior by its players, it states that everyone who participates in league activities can’t be involved in “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL.”

While players convicted of a crime can receive the strongest punishment, league rules allow for a wider range of discipline for others. It includes those subject to a deposition of a criminal proceeding and even those who did not receive a criminal conviction but an NFL investigation found the player “engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline.”

Among the prohibited conduct under the NFL personal conduct policy is disorderly conduct, conduct that undermines the integrity of the NFL, harassment, form of intimidation, sexual assault and other sexual offenses.

The NFL has already spoken to several of Watson’s accusers and the league investigation is ongoing. However, there is a new stipulation in the CBA that will impact any potential suspension.

Influence of NFL CBA on Deshaun Watson case

NFL: Cleveland Browns-Deshaun Watson Press Conference
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Before signing a new CBA with the league, the NFL Players’ Association wanted a way to reduce the level of power commissioner Roger Goodell had regarding player suspensions. Under the prior CBA, Goodell could unilaterally hand down a suspension to any player the league believed violated the personal conduct policy.

That is no longer the case under the new deal, with a new system put in place to create a more transparent and fair process.

Related: Commissioner Exempt list not in play for Deshaun Watson

As the new CBA states, the NFL and NFLPA must agree on a neutral arbitrator to review claims of a player violating the personal conduct policy.

“Fines or suspensions imposed upon players for violating the League’s Personal Conduct Policy, as well as whether a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy has been proven by the NFL, will be initially determined by a Disciplinary Officer jointly selected and appointed by the parties.”

2020 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement on discipline for players accused of violating Personal Conduct Policy

According to Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson, the league and players’ union are expected to choose former U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson to serve as the neutral arbitrator weighing in on the case.

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The process for Watson to receive a suspension will be more extensive as a result. First, the NFL investigation will need to find evidence that he violated the personal conduct policy. Any of its findings must be strong enough to then make a case to the independent arbitrator.

The judge will be paid evenly by the NFL and NFLPA, ensuring there is no favoritism based on who is funding the ruling. Additionally, Watson’s attorney will be able to make their case through the NFLPA to the judge.

Watson, or any player the NFL believes violated the personal conduct policy, can only be suspended if the independent arbitrator determines a violation of the policy occurred. After that, the judge can rule on a potential suspension length. Only after that ruling is made does Goodell have the authority to impose a different suspension if the league requests it through appeal.

  • Deshaun Watson contract: $1.035 million salary (2022), $46 million salary (2023-2026)

The new stipulation opens the door for Watson to avoid the NFL determining his fate. It’s likely good news for the Browns, offering them a bit more hope that he will play a majority of the 2022 season.