Deshaun Watson's attorney addresses non-disclosure agreements, $5,000 payment to spa
There are now 23 lawsuits against the Cleveland Browns quarterback, accused of unwanted sexual behavior.
The legal drama involving Deshaun Watson has reached a crossroads of sorts.
The lead counsel for the Cleveland Browns quarterback said the NFL is done interviewing his client after four days of grilling him. He also said that pretrial depositions have been conducted for 21 of the first 22 women who sued his client last year and accused him of sexual misconduct.
So now what?
As news about Watson continues to swirl, Rusty Hardin agreed to address a number of questions about these cases in an interview recently with USA TODAY Sports, including why Watson brought non-disclosure agreements for women to sign at massage sessions and why he paid $5,000 to the owner of a massage spa in Houston.
Hardin believes there’s a “good possibility” the NFL will make a decision he won’t like but calls it a “hell of a detailed investigation" by the league. He expects to learn about a decision sometime before the NFL season. But none of the lawsuits will go to trial before March, potentially leaving these matters hanging overhead well into next year.
Hardin denies the allegations against his client and frequently accused the news media of not vigorously investigating the credibility of the women out of fear of being accused of “victim-blaming” or being labeled “anti-woman.”
Watson’s non-disclosure habit
There are now 23 lawsuits against Watson filed by women who generally accuse him of unwanted sexual behavior during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021, including exposing himself to them, causing his genitals to touch them and making sexual requests. All were filed last year except the newest one filed Tuesday, which led Hardin to explain why Watson brought non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to massage sessions.
Such agreements typically require the person to keep details of their encounters secret. The women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, has suggested this was evidence of Watson’s intent for sex in these sessions.
Hardin said the 23rd plaintiff caused Watson to start his NDA habit because she posted Watson’s personal data on Instagram in November 2020, including his phone number. Another attorney at Hardin’s firm, Leah Graham, said Watson was “getting inundated with calls and texts from strangers” and had to change his phone number as a result.
“The head of security of the (Houston) Texans said, 'Whoever your vendors are, you need a non-disclosure agreement,’ so Deshaun started using a non-disclosure agreement in his massages,” Hardin said.
He also said the new lawsuit “is as inflammatory as all get-out and is replete with untruths.”
The $5,000 payment
USA TODAY Sports recently reported that a Houston spa owner testified in a pretrial deposition in May that Watson gave her $5,000 in November 2020, and the reason for it was because he was a “nice guy” and wanted to help her buy equipment for her spa. At least three of the plaintiffs suing Watson worked for this spa owner or were otherwise associated with her, including the newest plaintiff, whose lawsuit said this spa owner, Dionne Louis, facilitated massages for Watson as a favored client.
“She asked him to help out her business and he did, and that’s what the $5,000 was,” Hardin said. “It didn’t have anything to do with all the ulterior suggestions.”
Graham said Watson was active in the community after the death of a Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota on May 25, 2020.
“He was very inspired to help Black businesses,” she said. “That is one example of the numerous contributions he made to various Black businesses around Houston.”
The NFL investigation
The league has been investigating the women’s allegations and could suspend Watson if he’s found to have violated its personal conduct policy. Hardin said his firm is still engaged with the NFL and that the league interviewed Watson “a total of four days.” He said the NFL’s inquiry was “a hell of a detailed investigation.”
“I don’t want to extoll on how detailed their investigation has been in case when they make their mind up that we seriously object – which I think there may be a very good possibility of that – but we just don’t know,” Hardin said.
He said the interview process with Watson and the NFL is over.
“Now they’re going to do whatever else they do before we find out what their conclusion is,” Hardin said.
He doesn’t expect the new lawsuit filed Tuesday will change the NFL timeline.
“I think that is always going to be treated separately,” Hardin said, noting the new lawsuit came more than a year after the others and is on a different schedule in court.
New communications strategy
With depositions nearly complete with the plaintiffs, Hardin indicated his communications strategy has shifted. After the first 22 lawsuits were filed in March and April 2021, his legal team have sat across the table from all but one of these women, asked them questions under oath and recorded their answers.
“It is important to note that without exception every woman, in some way or the other, her deposition has been inconsistent with the lawsuit they filed that created all the publicity,” Hardin said.
He said the deposition transcripts give his legal team the advantage of using the women’s own words to show such inconsistencies.
“Where we’re going from now on, we’re going to try to answer yours and other people’s questions in the words of the women,” Hardin said.
Previously, he said his defenses of Watson weren’t taken seriously in the face of allegations from 22 women.
“We recognize that no matter what Leah and I say … we’re not going to be listened to, because we’re his advocate,” Hardin said. “All we can do now is respond to your and others’ questions with whatever the women have said.”
Hardin said last year Watson had “sometimes sexual encounters” with these women and recently said he had consensual sex with three of the plaintiffs, which he said was initiated by the women.
One of those women has accused of Watson of sexual assault and forcing her to perform oral sex.
This woman recently sat for a deposition and “denied that he ever forced her,” Graham said. USA TODAY Sports requested a transcript from Hardin but hasn’t received it.
Graham points to text messages Hardin shared last year in which they say this same woman wrote to Watson after his massage. According to them, the first text from her says, “Thank you for trusting me with your massage today. I’ll be here until Jan. 3 if you’d like to get another one.”
Another encounter that Graham said was consensual involved a woman who said Watson coerced her into oral sex during their fourth encounter.
“It occurred during their fourth massage session at her home, in her master bedroom, the location that she chose, and after that event she continued to reach out to him and schedule additional massages,” Graham said.
The third allegedly consensual encounter involved a woman who “hasn’t even conceded or mentioned she had sex with him,” Hardin said. By contrast, Watson has acknowledged sex with this woman, Graham said.
“I think that’s significant because if Watson wanted to lie about that … he had full cover,” Graham said. “He could have lied” and said he did not have sex with this woman.
Buzbee, the plaintiffs attorney, said these encounters were not consensual and said the acknowledgement by Watson that sex occurred in these encounters is evidence of his intent to get sex in these encounters – an intent that was not shared by his clients.
And if Watson was paying these women for massages that ended with sex, wouldn’t that also appear to be Watson paying for sex?
Hardin said the consensual encounters were initiated by the women and said Watson did not pay anyone for sex.
Settle or go to trial?
Two grand juries in the Houston area declined to indict Watson on criminal charges in March after being presented with a combined 10 complaints filed by women against him. The civil cases still proceed with no trial date yet. Watson could decide he wants to settle them, if only to end the drama and ongoing expense of them. Or not.
The newest lawsuit notes that “Watson offered each Plaintiff $100,000 to settle their cases, but not all would accept that amount, due to the aggressive nondisclosure agreement that Watson’s team proposed.”
Hardin extolled the advantages of going to trial. That doesn’t mean it will happen.
“I simply believe there are certain cases that the accused is only going to get a fair shot in a courtroom where somebody challenges on his behalf,” Hardin said.
Graham stressed looking at each case on its own merits.
“If you look at these cases individually and you look at the evidence and not the soundbites that Buzbee spouts on a daily basis, but the actual evidence, you find what the grand jury found,” Graham said. “Nothing wrong occurred, civilly or criminally.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com