Around 10 of the more than two dozen women who accused Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct were expected to attend his game in Houston on Sunday, according to their attorney.
Watson returned to the field to a mix of boos and cheers Sunday for his first NFL regular season game in two years to play against his former team, the Houston Texans, after serving an 11-game suspension without pay following sexual misconduct allegations.
“They thought it important to make clear that they are still here and that they matter. I was proud of them for that,” Tony Buzbee, the lawyer representing the accusers attending the game, told CNN in a statement. “I have made that opportunity available to them. I haven’t been to a Texans game in many years. But, because they are going, I will go too.”
Before his suspension, 24 civil lawsuits were filed on behalf of women alleging Watson sexually harassed or assaulted them during private massage appointments during his time with the Houston Texans. Watson denied wrongdoing in those cases, and 23 of the lawsuits were settled confidentially. Two grand juries declined to charge Watson criminally.
Less than two months after settling the lawsuits, a new civil suit was filed by another woman in October, alleging that Watson pressured her into sexual activity during a professional massage session. Despite the new lawsuit, the NFL said his status would remain “unchanged.”
Watson has repeatedly denied the allegations against him and said he has no regrets about any of his actions. He spoke to the media for the first time Thursday since returning from suspension, declining to answer any non-football questions that were asked.
“I understand you guys have a lot of questions, but with my legal team and my clinical team, there is only football questions that I can really address at this time,” Watson told reporters, adding that he was “excited” to be back with his team and thanked those who stood by his side.
“I also want to thank the Browns organization, the ownership, my teammates in that locker room and all of the coaching staff for all of the support that they had for me, especially my time away,” he said.
Watson violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy in private meetings with massage therapists while he was with the Houston Texans, according to the initial ruling by Sue L. Robinson, a judge jointly appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) to decide on Watson’s punishment.
Watson’s “pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson said in her ruling, adding that Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” was a factor in the discipline that she chose.
Anti-sexual violence organizations voice support for accusers
When Watson plays at NRG Stadium in Houston against his former team on Sunday, among those watching him from the sidelines will be women who he allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted.
“I think it’s important to note each of these women is different. You can’t paint them with a broad brush. I would never encourage any of them to attend,” Buzbee said. “Some never want to hear Watson’s name again. Others have put it in the past. Some are still angry. Others are defiant. Makes me proud they want to stand up and be counted rather than quietly go away.”
The NFL and the Cleveland Browns did not respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding the accusers’ attendance.
Despite denying the allegations, Watson, who started the preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in August, said that he is “truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation” during a pregame interview shared by the Browns on Twitter
“My decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character and I am going to keep pushing forward,” Watson said.
Women’s movement organizations and nonprofits dedicated to protecting victims of sexual assault and harassment have applauded the accusers for attending the game.
“I’m proud of them for being strong enough to try and take some of the power back. Even today when survivors hear stories like this, they are triggered by it,” Donisha Greene, spokeswoman for local advocacy group the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (RCC), told CNN. “By attending the game, the accusers are saying they are not willing to suffer in silence. What that says to other survivors is that you don’t have to suffer in silence either.”
Christian Nunes, the president of women’s rights grassroots group National Organization for Women (NOW), echoed Greene’s sentiments.
“What happens so often is people try to shame, victim blame, silence, and erase victims and survivors of violence and abuse,” Nunes told CNN. “For them to show up and say no, you wont erase me, is so powerful. I give them so much respect and admiration for standing up against him, letting him know nothing, including money, can or will silence them.”
Despite Cleveland’s love for its NFL team, Greene says many in the local community have increased their support for advocacy organizations like the Cleveland RCC that support sexual abuse and rape survivors, promoting healing and prevention, and increasing education.
“It’s a tough place to be in. We’re a huge football town, folks here have been lifelong fans of the Cleveland Browns,” Greene said. “It’s a big deal to try and straddle that fence between your fandom and recognizing you’re not comfortable with the story of Deshaun Watson.”
Even with dozens of sexual misconduct allegations, the Browns traded three first-round picks with the Texans for Watson, then signed him to a 5-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract, the most guaranteed money in NFL history.
“It’s just like a big ‘screw you,’” Ashley Solis, one of Watson’s accusers, told HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” following the news of his signing. “That’s what it feels like. That we don’t care. He can run and throw, and that’s what we care about.”
The decision triggered outrage and inspired many to get involved, Greene said, adding that the Cleveland RCC received over $120,000 donations specifically related to Watson.
“For those who are struggling with wanting to speak up for victims but also cheer for the Browns and find a medium can get involved with our work and mission,” she added. “Our place is with the survivors, We believe you, we hear you, we see you. Your stories and your experiences matter.”
‘His punishment is not enough’
While the league has faced scrutiny in the past for its handling of sexual misconduct accusations, this was the NFL’s harshest punishment for someone accused of sexual assault.
The NFL initially asked for a suspension covering its 17-game regular season and playoffs, but Robinson ruled on August 1 that Watson would receive a six-game suspension.
No player accused of non-violent sexual assault, as Watson has been, has received a suspension longer than three games, Robinson said in her ruling, and the most common discipline for domestic or gendered violence and sexual acts is a six-game suspension.
Unlike in the past, however, the NFL pushed for more – appealing the decision and seeking a full-season suspension. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called Watson’s behavior “egregious” and “predatory.”
When asked why the league continued to seek a harsher punishment for Watson, Goodell said: “Because we’ve seen the evidence. (Robinson) was very clear about the evidence, she reinforced the evidence that there was multiple violations here and they were egregious and it was predatory behavior.”
Later that month, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to suspend Watson for 11 regular season games and fine him $5 million, plus an extra $1 million each from both the league and the Browns to go towards nonprofit organizations working to prevent sexual assault, support survivors and educate youth on healthy relationships.
“We as an organization and as individuals, we have tremendous empathy for the women involved and we have an opportunity to make a difference in this community,” Susan “Dee” Haslam, co-owner of the Browns, said in August.
Watson also underwent “a professional evaluation by behavioral experts” and followed their ” treatment program,” according to the agreement.
Women advocacy groups argue none of that is enough.
The NFL has issued longer suspensions for violations including alleged drug use and gambling – and under his latest contract with the Browns, the suspension will not cost much of his guaranteed money, according to ESPN.
“His punishment is not enough,” Nunes said, arguing that Watson should be banned entirely from the league. “Although they’ve done all this performative work, essentially they’re saying they will choose profit over actually protecting women and survivors.”
Jimmy Haslam, Dee Haslam’s husband and Browns co-owner, said, “People deserve second chances.”
“Is he never supposed to play again? Is he never supposed to be part of society? Does he get no chance to rehabilitate himself? And that’s what we’re going to do,” he said, referring to Watson. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have empathy for people affected and we will continue to do so. We believe that Deshaun Watson deserves a second chance.”
The team’s “refusal to prioritize protecting women sends a disgusting message” to survivors of sexual assault, Nunes said.
“The fact that Watson can continue working, with no real accountability, is outrageous,” she said. “The NFL needs to stop harboring abusers and sexual predators.”
CNN’s Jacob Lev, Leah Asmelash, Joe Sutton, David Close and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.