The Cleveland Browns insisted Friday the team did an “unbiased and comprehensive” investigation of Deshaun Watson and brought him to the club despite numerous sexual misconduct allegations against the star quarterback.
Browns General Manager Andrew Berry, Coach Kevin Stefanski and Watson himself spoke to reporters for about 40 minutes, defending the quarterback’s trade from Houston to Cleveland but generally sidestepping questions about allegations, citing ongoing investigations and civil lawsuits.
Berry said attorneys counseled the team against “reaching out directly” to Watson’s accusers.
“It 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,” said Berry, who did not elaborate on exactly who the Browns spoke to for the club’s probe.
“It got us comfortable with Deshaun the person. And we realized, we’re not naive to the fact that there are many people who aren’t as comfortable with this transaction as we are today.”
Berry added: “We do think there’s a strong and detailed body of work about Deshaun and we do have faith in him as a person.”
A grand jury near Houston declined to indict Watson on sexual misconduct allegations, officials said Thursday, in the second such panel to refuse charges against him this month.
The decision out of Brazoria County follows a similar action out of Harris County, which two weeks ago also elected not to prosecute Watson, the former Houston Texans star now with the Cleveland Browns.
Watson had been sidelined throughout this past season due to the accusations and his demand to be traded.
“After a careful and thorough review of the facts and evidence documented in the reports prepared by the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department, as well as hearing testimony from witnesses, the Grand Jury for Brazoria County has declined to charge Deshaun Watson with any crimes,” according to a statement by Brazoria County DA Tom Selleck. “Accordingly, this matter is closed.”
Watson has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women in civil lawsuits.
They alleged that Watson improperly touched the plaintiffs after hiring them as massage therapists and personal trainers. And several of those plaintiffs were slated to testify before the Harris County grand jury, their lawyer had said.
Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam did not attend Friday’s meeting with reporters.
Watson, in his first public comments since the allegations arose, was asked if he’d be willing to seek any kind of counseling and he said: “I don’t have a problem, I don’t have an issue.”
The quarterback repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and stuck to handful of talking points in proclaiming innocence.
“That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning,” he said. “I never assaulted anyone, never disrespected anyone. I‘ve always been respectful. That’s what I’ve always stood on and that’s who I am as a person.”
Watson acknowledged that he arrives in Cleveland with detractors disbelieving his innocence. But the QB said he hopes to someday become active in the community.
“I’m not naive to that. I know these allegations (are) very, very serious,” said Watson. “I just want the opportunity to be able to show who I really am in the community and be hands on and to help people and serve other people.”
The Harris County decision not to indict Watson cleared the way for Houston to trade him to Cleveland.
Even though Watson hasn’t thrown a football in a competitive game since Jan. 3, 2021, he’s still just 26 and considered to be in the prime of his career. He passed for a league-high 4,823 yards in that 2020 campaign.
Defense lawyer Rusty Hardin said he hopes his client is now in the clear.
“We are thrilled that the Brazoria County grand jury cleared Deshaun Watson of the one remaining criminal allegation,” Hardin said in a statement. “We’ve known all along what people who learn the facts also know — Deshaun committed no crimes. In fact, two separate grand juries have now found that there wasn’t even probable cause to believe he committed a crime.”
Watson could still be subject to league discipline despite evading criminal charges. But with a reported $44.965 million signing bonus as part of his new deal in Cleveland, Watson would likely be shielded from a huge financial hit if he were suspended for any games this upcoming season.
A 2022 suspension would only hit Watson’s base salary of a little more than $1 million.
GM Berry said the deal wasn’t structured to protect Watson’s bottom-line interests,. but said: “We certainly understand the optics of it.”
Cleveland was 8-9 this past season and narrowly missed the playoffs. Since acquiring Watson, the Browns became borderline Super Bowl contender with the odds of them winning it all at 14-1, the seventh lowest of the NFL’s 32 teams.
Anthony Cusumano contributed.