CLEVELAND BROWNS

Why did Deshaun Watson contact so many women for massages? The QB has struggled to explain

Of all the questions that have dogged Deshaun Watson during the past year, one of the biggest is why a star NFL quarterback sought massages from at least 40 women, including many strangers he met on social media in 2020.

His attorney Rusty Hardin said last year that a big reason for it was the COVID-19 pandemic. “Spas shut down,” Hardin said then. “Nobody was getting massages unless they came up with an ad hoc way to do it.”

But that reason didn’t seem to hold up when Watson himself was questioned about it recently, according to the attorney for 22 women who have sued Watson and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

“He couldn’t say any place was shut down because of COVID,” the attorney, Tony Buzbee, told USA TODAY Sports. “He didn’t reach out to any place that shut down. He didn’t even ask.”

Buzbee said Watson’s answers on this question have not been consistent during the pretrial discovery process for the lawsuits, renewing the focus on it more than a year after the controversy started. It is the first time Watson has discussed it under oath. 

Deshaun Watson talks with the media during his Cleveland Browns introductory press conference.

“He just basically reached out to people he had never met before based on their picture, and never asked about their qualifications or anything,” Buzbee said.

In one case, Buzbee said Watson admitted to engaging in oral sex with a plaintiff. Watson said it was consensual. The woman says it was not. 

“Regardless of whether we believed it was consensual, now we can prove he’s reaching out to these women for that very purpose, and he’s pushing them, he’s cajoling them,” Buzbee said.  

Hardin said these questions were not relevant to whether Watson engaged in sexual misconduct with these women, though legal experts say it relates to what Watson's intentions were in these encounters. Hardin also accused Buzbee of selectively leaking only portions of depositions that favor his cases. 

"When you ask about 'he couldn’t name a place that had been shut down,' well neither can I, but the governor ordered it for 90 days in Texas," Hardin told USA TODAY Sports. "There were no massages (then), period. Nobody except people on Instagram were doing it."

The governor's shutdown lasted from March to May in 2020, when only a few of the alleged incidents occurred. The rest happened from June 2020 until early March 2021. Asked why Watson went to so many different women he didn't know instead of a trusted circle of five, Hardin said Watson was "all over the country when he’s getting these things. He’s not going to know any of these people."

All of the alleged incidents were in or near Houston, Watson's city of residence, except for single cases in Georgia, Arizona and California.

"Most people don’t know the person giving them the massage," Hardin said. 

After 10 women filed complaints to police about Watson's massage habits, two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him on criminal charges in those cases. But much remains at stake as the 22 lawsuits press on in civil court. They could take another year to resolve. He also still could be suspended by the NFL.

In the meantime, Watson's responses on this topic haven't exactly quieted the controversy after recently being traded to the Cleveland Browns, a team that gave him a contract with the most guaranteed money in NFL history — $230 million over five years. He was asked about it at his introductory news conference with the team March 25 and said 40 women "is not in one period of time."

“I think that's a question at the heart of the case,” said Kenneth Williams, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. “The jury is going to want to know why a star NFL quarterback would need to seek out so many massage therapists and especially on social media. … The vast number and the lengths he went for these massages … is certainly suspicious and suggests that he was looking for more than just a massage.”

At least 40 women in recent years gave him massages, including the 22 who have sued him and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions from early 2020 to March 2021. According to court records obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Watson has refused to answer written questions about whether he had sex with 18 other therapists who came forward last year to say he never made them feel uncomfortable. One of those 18 women testified in a pretrial deposition that she had reason to suspect Watson was having sex with additional women he hired for massages.

In another twist, his marketing manager testified in a pretrial deposition in February that the Houston Texans, Watson’s former team, had given Watson a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) form for him to have strangers sign even when he went to dinner with them.

The purpose of this was for him to be more “careful” about his interactions with strangers, according to the testimony. This was several weeks before these cases became public in March 2021, setting off a year in which he didn't play football amid the unresolved controversy.

As Watson prepares to resume his NFL career with a new team, here’s a look at the reasons given for having so many therapists and why the question still looms. The 40 women include several who were not licensed massage therapists and one who said Watson arranged to fly her from Atlanta to Houston for a massage two weeks after contacting her for the first time on Instagram.

“It only takes one case to justify discipline” against him in the NFL, said the NFL’s former counsel for operations and litigation, Jodi Balsam, now a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Watson's explanation

Watson had a ready answer when asked about the 22 lawsuits at the Browns’ news conference. He gave variations of the same response four different times.

“I never assaulted, I never disrespected and I never harassed any woman in my life,” he said.

By contrast, in a recent video recording obtained by Fox 8 television in Cleveland, Watson was shown answering another question with less clarity during a pretrial deposition. Buzbee asked Watson about driving a half hour out of town to meet a woman at her mother’s house for a massage and bringing his own towel.

“You don’t think that’s a little bit weird?” Buzbee asked.

“It is what it is,” Watson said.

The description of this encounter matches that of a lawsuit filed by a woman who said he contacted her on Instagram, arrived at the house with an NDA for her to sign and later aggressively moved his penis toward her hand and ejaculated on her during the massage.

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Buzbee said text messages show Watson insisted on bringing his own towel to these massages. He said he told Watson in a deposition, "You brought your towel because you wanted to bring back your own towel."

Other lawsuits describe similar encounters involving improper touching and Watson exposing himself. Hardin said the women are lying and out for money but that there were "sometimes consensual encounters."

In the news conference, a reporter asked Watson why he didn’t just stick with one massage person because 40 “just seems like so many.”

“I never as far as the team – when I say team, I am not saying the Cleveland Browns but my agency and things like that – 40 is just over the time," he said. "It is not in one period of time. I have been in Houston five years, so you go to different people. Like I said before, I can’t get too far into the details, but as businesses work and you move and meet different people and people have different schedules and blocks, you kind of meet people over time.”

He said he couldn’t get into detail because there is an “ongoing investigation,” presumably meaning the lawsuits.

“But I can say that with this now day and age, especially with my age group, social media is a big business part that goes into it,” he said.

His attorneys’ explanation

In court records, Watson estimated he had 75 massages in 2019, before the pandemic in 2020. The massages at issue in the lawsuits came in 2020 and 2021. Hardin tried to explain the number last year.

“Somebody might say, 'Oh my god, look at all those lawsuits. Does that mean he saw that many people?’ ” Hardin said in April 2021. “Folks, this guy has been getting two to three massages a week. The math I do on that is anywhere from 120 to 140 to 150 massages a year. … In the year 2020, all of a sudden, spas shut down.”

Hardin also stressed on Sunday to USA TODAY Sports that Instagram is where massage therapists advertise their businesses.

"When you talk to any of these athletes or any people in their 20s, they’re doing everything by Instagram," Hardin said. 

Another one of Watson’s attorneys, Letitia Quinones, explained last year why Watson got so many massages.

“Everything that he described about the areas that he needed massaged was extremely important for him to be the escape artist that he is when he’s in the pocket,” she said.

But Buzbee said Watson's recent answers in pretrial discovery show something else. He couldn't say any place was shut down because of COVID. Buzbee also said Watson reached out to new women he didn't know for massages instead of just sticking with those who previously gave him massages.

“Let’s assume you met a stranger on the internet who gave you a massage – then why not go back to her?” Buzbee said. "“If she gave you a decent massage, why did you reach out to somebody new?”

Buzbee said he forced Watson to admit that it "wasn’t his priority to see if they had any training" with massages.

Watson, 26, also testified in the recent deposition that he didn’t tell his employer or trainer he was meeting these strangers for massages.

Hardin said none of these issues has anything to do with whether Watson did anything wrong.

"Tell me how if a guy goes to somebody and picks them out on Instagram, that means he has some ill intent in mind," Hardin said. He asked what was "wrong" about going to 40 women for massages.

"If a guy goes and gets a massage and hopes maybe that somehow something else will happen, that’s not a crime," Hardin said, speaking in general and not about Watson specifically. "It’s not only not a crime, it’s not a civil liability issue."

An attorney who’s been following the case but is not involved called Watson's attorneys' explanations  “somewhat plausible" if he was being denied services at his favored spas because they were closed. 

On the other hand, “from the victim’s point of view, they’re going to make the obvious argument that he was seeking out different women because he wanted to take advantage of them and he figured that if you go through social media you might get away with more things,” said the attorney, David Ring, who has represented sex assault victims in Los Angeles.

The other 18 women

After the lawsuits started piling up against him in March 2021, Hardin issued a release to the news media that tried to take some heat off his client. It said that since the controversy started, his firm had received dozens of unsolicited phone calls, letters, e-mails and text messages from professional massage therapists who have worked with Watson.

He listed 18 women who made statements in support of Watson’s conduct during their interactions with him.

But now these women who came to his defense are the subject of a dispute in court. Buzbee's firm has tried to get Watson to answer written questions about whether he had sex with these 18 women.

Watson has refused to answer, saying the question is harassing, “seeks private information” and is not relevant.

This has led Buzbee's firm to ask the court to compel him to answer these requests for information. A decision by a judge could come soon.

“The discovery requests seek information of these 18 massage therapist(s), as well as other women known to have massaged Defendant Watson and with whom he had sexual relations,” said a court document filed March 16 by Maria Holmes, an attorney at Buzbee’s firm.  

The filing stated one of these 18 women suspected Watson was having sexual relations with other women he hired for massages.

“If Mr. Watson was having sex with other massage therapists and other women then he likely expected to do so with Plaintiffs,” the filing states. “This shows a pattern of conduct that is absolutely relevant and could lead to discovering other untoward behavior.”

Ring, the attorney in Los Angeles, doubts Buzbee will succeed in getting this information because the judge might not want the 22 cases in court to delve into the private histories of a whole other set of women who aren’t alleging misconduct.

The NDAs

Non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, are not uncommon for celebrities to use in business or romantic relationships.

Ring said he once had a case against a “very high-profile” celebrity and found out this celebrity would “hand out NDAs like M&M candies.”

“The pizza guy would come inside his house to deliver a pizza and he’d make the guy sign an NDA,” Ring said.

In Watson’s case, if he’s walking around with NDAs to have people sign at massages and dinners, “that’s not necessarily normal activity,” Ring said. He called it an “eyebrow raiser.”

Buzbee has said Watson asked a number of women to sign them before or after they gave him massages.

Was it because he had something to hide? Or because he and the Texans wanted to closely guard his reputation during private interactions with strangers?

But if he was that concerned about risky encounters, why did he even meet with them in the first place?

In a deposition in February 2022, Watson’s marketing manager, Bryan Burney, was asked why Watson had an NDA form from the Texans in January 2021, several weeks before the massage controversy became public.

“It sounded like just to be more careful,” Burney testified, according to a partial transcript filed with court records. “He said anywhere from, you know, people at dinners that he doesn't know. It was pretty vague.”

“You're telling me he would use this NDA at dinners?” Buzbee asked Burney.

“I've never witnessed it, but that was one of the examples I was given when I asked what was the purpose of it,” Burney replied.

“What was the other examples you were given?” Buzbee asked.

“I don't recall specifically, but I know dinners were mentioned, you know, anybody that's giving treatment or people that we're working with that are new,” Burney stated.

“Massages?” Buzbee asked

“I don't recall that being specified,” Burney replied. “Again, I didn't really – I didn't ask a ton of questions about it.”

The Texans didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The transcript of the Burney deposition was attached to court records from Buzbee's firm that are asking the court to compel Watson to document all the massages he received in 2019-2020. Watson's legal team objected, calling it a fishing expedition.

Court records also show the attorneys for each side recently agreed not to schedule any trials in these matters from Aug. 1 to March 1, 2023, which helps keep Watson free of a big distraction during football season.

Yet it also potentially keeps these questions alive another year unless the lawsuits are settled before then. It's even possible at least one case could go to trial in July. 

In the meantime, Watson might change his strategy. At his news conference with the Browns, Watson was asked if he was reevaluating his methods for finding massage therapists.

“Definitely,” Watson said. “It is something that with my team and now with the Cleveland Browns the organization, we find a plan and move forward from there.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschroten@usatoday.com