'This is the towel I’m gonna use’: Deshaun Watson and the towel evidence in lawsuits
Plaintiffs attorneys say Watson's insistence on bringing a personal towel to massage sessions is evidence of his intent for sex and not simply a professional massage.
Deshaun Watson often made a certain request when he traveled to other people’s homes or businesses to get massages. He wanted to use a towel to drape himself and sometimes even asked to bring his own personal towel described as small or medium in size, according to court records.
The Cleveland Browns quarterback even testified about it in a pretrial deposition May 13.
“This is the towel I’m gonna use,” Watson said he told a massage therapist in March 2020, according to the deposition transcript obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
This practice isn’t normal and is not advisable, according to a massage and spa industry expert contacted by USA TODAY Sports. Professional spas and massage therapists typically provide their own draping for clients. That draping also is usually large enough to make sure there isn’t any unwanted exposure if the clients are nude or in their underwear underneath.
But Watson had another idea, according to the attorneys for the 24 women who have sued Watson and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021.
As the pretrial discovery process continues in these cases, they say his insistence on bringing a personal towel to these sessions is evidence of his intent for sex and not simply a professional massage. Their lawsuits suggest the towel he brought was small enough to make it easy to expose his private parts to these women during these encounters. The attorneys also say he brought his own towel so he could take his towel back with him, lowering the risk of leaving any DNA evidence behind.
Watson’s attorneys disputed this and called the towel issue a “red herring.” They scoffed at the plaintiffs’ DNA theory, saying that even if the women are to be believed, these women alleged that any DNA evidence from Watson ended up on their bodies or other surfaces, not Watson’s personal towel.
That still doesn’t speak to his intent, which only Watson knows for sure. They acknowledged Watson had a preference for his draping.
“He’s always made it clear that for comfort reasons, he wanted the least draping possible that still covered him,” Watson’s lead counsel, Rusty Hardin, told USA TODAY Sports in an interview June 2.
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Watson, 26, has denied wrongdoing but didn’t give clear answers in recent pretrial depositions when asked to explain why he brought his own towel.
“Why did you bring a towel?” plaintiffs attorney Maria Holmes asked Watson during the deposition.
“Because that was – we talked on the phone and I told her I was bringing a towel,” he replied. “We communicated with that and that's how it was.”
At least six of the women said Watson requested to bring or brought his own towel to massage sessions with women he contacted on Instagram, according to court records. His towel preference became known as his "towel trick" in some circles, but he didn’t always bring his own. In some cases, he didn’t need to bring his own towel because the massage happened at his own home or hotel.
'Preferred form of draping'
In one case, he testified in a deposition he drove about 25 miles south of Houston to get a massage at a woman’s mother’s house. He brought a towel and a non-disclosure agreement for the woman to sign and waited in his vehicle after arriving at the scene early.
“You’re sitting there in your car, in Manvel (Texas), with your towel and your NDA waiting for her, right?” lead plaintiffs counsel Tony Buzbee asked him in another deposition this year.
“I guess if you make it seem that way, yes sir,” Watson replied.
In this case, the woman’s lawsuit stated, “The towel was so small that the towel kept sliding off Watson’s penis, to where he was completely exposed. Plaintiff had to keep putting the towel back in place.”
The woman said Watson then directed her to his groin, saying “don’t be scared.” In a second encounter, her lawsuit stated it started much the same way with a small towel and ended with him ejaculating on her arm and hand.
Watson’s attorneys dispute this. One of Watson’s attorneys, Leah Graham, told USA TODAY Sports that the woman testified in a pretrial deposition “there was no part of his butt or genitalia that was exposed” when Watson was draped for that massage. She also cited several other plaintiffs’ testimonies in which she said the women described the draping as adequate to cover his front and back private parts.
Whether the towel stayed that way is another matter. The smaller the covering, the easier it is to fall out of place.
Hardin said Watson brought his own towel sometimes because “it was his preferred form of draping.”
“If you want to make sure a particular type of draping is used, I have a hard time imagining what the relevance is of bringing that type of draping with you in case the other person doesn’t have it,” Hardin said.
Hardin has said the women are lying in their lawsuits and that Buzbee views Watson as a potential “payday” as the attorney for all 24 plaintiffs. In the case in Manvel, a grand jury in Brazoria County declined to indict him on criminal charges. Another grand jury in Harris County also declined to indict him on nine other complaints.
Bringing a towel to a massage isn’t proof of guilt. But Buzbee and his legal team have stressed it at times in the pretrial discovery process for these civil cases, which continue to move forward and won’t go to trial until next year. The NFL also has been investigating these cases and could suspend Watson if he is found to have violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
The women's attorneys say the towel habit adds to the evidence of his patterned plan for sex at massages, along with his habit of scheduling so many massages with strangers he met on social media, including many who were not licensed massage therapists.
Hardin has said three of the 24 cases involved consensual sex initiated by the women. In response, Buzbee points to this admission of sex in some cases as further evidence of Watson’s intent for sex in these encounters – an intent he said was not shared by his clients.
In typical professional massage settings, therapists cover clients with a clean sheet, blanket and/or a towel during a massage, an industry expert told USA TODAY Sports. There is a reason for this.
Draping is designed to provide warmth, privacy, and modesty to their clients, sanitation for equipment and a physical boundary between the therapist and client, said Felicia Brown, a massage and spa industry expert.
Draping styles may vary, she said, though in most states the legal requirement is for draping to securely cover the private areas on all clients.
“Massage therapists and massage therapy businesses usually follow specific draping practices or policies that do not vary much from client to client,” said Brown, who is not involved in the Watson cases and is describing massage practices in general. “The linens used in draping are a primary tool to ensure the safety, sanitation and comfort for both client and therapist. As such, it is quite uncommon for clients to bring their own towel or draping to a massage and unlikely a female massage therapist would be comfortable with a male client doing so.”
Brown also said that the COVID-19 pandemic created sanitation concerns for therapists, leading many massage and spa businesses to ask clients to leave all personal items at home to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus.
“As a massage therapist who has performed over 20,000 massages since 1994, I can only recall one client who brought and requested I use his small towel as the drape,” Brown said.
'I always do that’
In several of these cases with Watson, the women’s lawsuits state they objected to him bringing his own towel or thought his insistence on it was odd. His deposition on May 13 involved the case of massage therapist Ashley Solis, the first woman to sue Watson in March 2021. Her encounter with Watson happened in March 2020 and was preceded by a phone conversation.
“So you said you discussed over the phone bringing a towel?” asked Holmes, Solis’s attorney.
“Yeah, of course,” Watson said, according to the transcript. “I wasn't – I'm not just gonna bring a towel just for no reason. I always do that. I always communicated with people about if we're using a towel or if we wasn't.”
Watson described his towel in this case as a medium towel and said some people describe them as wash towels or a “hand rag.”
"It was enough to cover my butt and my front private area," he testified.
During the encounter, Solis’s lawsuit states that she initially left Watson alone in the room at her home but when she came back in, Watson was naked with only a small towel covering his groin area – the towel he brought himself.
Watson later “purposely exposed the tip of his penis from under the towel,” her suit states. He then moved his body to expose himself more and purposely touched her hand with his penis, according to the suit. The suit states Solis then ended the massage, got scared and started crying.
Holmes suggested in the deposition that Solis wanted to use her own draping. Her lawsuit has a footnote about Watson’s towel that says she was surprised by it “and now knows she should have ended the session immediately.” It says she assumed Watson was accustomed to acting in this way.
“You don't remember her telling you she wanted to use her own draping?” Holmes asked Watson.
“No,” Watson said. “We had a towel and we agreed.”
“Sitting here today, that is your testimony and with Ms. Solis here present?” Holmes asked.
“Yes,” Watson said. “Yes, I would tell you that no, I do not remember her telling me she did not want me to use that towel. I can look at her and tell her that too. She did not.”
Graham, Watson’s attorney, said Watson discussed draping with the women before their massage sessions “and in every single instance, the plaintiffs have admitted under oath they agreed to use the draping that was used.”
The DNA issue
Watson’s encounter with Solis ended with her being “teary-eyed” with eyes that were “watering,” according to Watson’s deposition testimony. He said he didn’t know why. He also acknowledged sending her a text afterward saying, “Sorry about you feeling uncomfortable.”
“What happened to the towel you brought?” Solis’s attorney asked Watson in the May 13 deposition.
“It got washed and cleaned,” Watson replied, according to the transcript. “And that was that.”
“Did you take it with you?” Holmes asked.
“It was my towel, so yes,” Watson said.
“And because you didn't want to leave your DNA there?” Holmes asked.
“There was no DNA to leave,” Watson said. “Like I said, I brought my towel. We used it. And I took it back with me.”
Watson’s attorneys say the plaintiff’s DNA theory doesn’t add up because in cases where the women alleged he ejaculated in their presence, they also say this DNA evidence ended up on their bodies or sheets, not necessarily his towel.
In the case in Manvel, Graham said the woman testified the towel had fallen off prior to ejaculation. She said the woman testified she went to get the towel “to cover him back up” and wiped the fluid on her own sheet.
“In their words, they wiped it off on a sheet, which means it stayed there,” Hardin told USA TODAY Sports. “He didn’t walk off with their sheets. So the suggestion that he was bringing towels to avoid leaving DNA is patently false, according to the women.”
Watson’s intent is still in dispute. If one reason he brought his towel was to lower the risk of leaving DNA evidence, such a plan never could have been guaranteed to work perfectly and catch every bit of DNA he might leave.
Buzbee told USA TODAY Sports his legal team “tried the DNA angle” to obtain evidence.
“We don’t have any of the sheets, etc., to get samples from,” he said. “The women had no idea that they should not wash or should try to retain that stuff.”
Watson’s alleged 'proclivities’
Most of the lawsuits now allege that Watson had sexual “proclivities” that he failed to warn the women about beforehand and therefore was negligent in his behavior. One of these alleged proclivities involved exposing his private parts to women without their consent.
The lawsuits state this was made easier by his preference for relatively small towels or draping.
One plaintiff’s lawsuit stated that Watson inquired beforehand as to how he would be draped, leading the woman to respond that she “intended to use what is common – a sheet and a blanket.”
“Watson told Plaintiff he did not want to use sheets, and then inquired as to whether Plaintiff had towels,” according to the lawsuit. “Plaintiff explained she had large towels and medium size hand towels. Curiously, Watson informed her the towels she had were unacceptable, and indicated that he would bring his own towel.”
After he arrived, the woman said she left Watson alone so he could change. When she returned, the lawsuit stated “Watson was completely naked, laying face down on her massage table with only a washcloth covering his butt.”
The suit states he became “completely exposed” and “moved his penis onto Plaintiff’s hand in an attempt to get her to touch it.” The lawsuit said that Watson then presented the woman with an NDA to sign in order for him to pay. She did and was paid $250 via Cash App, even though the service only cost $65, according to the suit.
Hardin said Watson brought NDAs to massages after one of the plaintiffs in November 2020 posted his personal data online, including his phone number. The purpose was to protect himself, he said.
“Without exception every single woman testified that the draping, whether it was a big towel or medium towel or what, was always sufficient to cover him,” Hardin said in the June 2 interview with Graham. “It always started out down below his rear and up to the small of his back … As to why he brought his own, I don’t think either one of us remembers saying, `Why did you bring your own?’”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com