(Warning: This column contains allegations of sexual misconduct.)
It should be of little surprise that when Houston-area attorney Tony Buzbee announced that 20 of his 24 clients had settled civil lawsuits against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, he spent most of the time talking about one of the plaintiffs who hadn’t resolved things .
Tuesday’s settlements are a step toward Watson eventually moving past this scandal and perhaps returning to play NFL games, but it was by no means the end, or even close to it.
Solis and three other women who allege sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate behavior from Watson after he hired them for massage work remain. And Solis has always had a particularly strong case — and thus an ugly and potentially dangerous one for Watson.
It was Solis who had an established, professional massage-therapy business. It was Solis who was contacted out of the blue by Watson via Instagram. It is Solis who describes a creepy run-up to the meeting, alleging Watson inquired if she would be alone before sprawling out naked on the massage table with just a small hand towel and repeatedly directing contact to the groin area and then penis.
It is Solis who testified she ended the meeting abruptly and cried in front of Watson, which Watson acknowledged under oath, describing Solis as “teary-eyed.” It is Solis who received an apologetic text message from Watson, but also one that Solis took as threatening should she speak up about the encounter.
“I know you have a career and a reputation,” Watson wrote. “And I know you would hate for someone to mess with yours, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”
It is Solis on whom Buzbee is hoping the focus remains.
“Ashley Solis is one of the heroes of this story,” Buzbee wrote in a statement. “Her case has not settled and thus her story and that of the other three brave women will continue. I look forward to trying these cases in due course, consistent with other docket obligations and the court’s schedule.”
In other words, the very compelling case of Ashley Solis remains and eventually the court will hear it, likely in 2023.
Watson can either figure out how to settle that one, or risk the NFL either delaying its disciplinary decision or being influenced out of fear of the headlines and potential details that will come if it ever reaches court. The league stated Tuesday that the settlements had “no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process,” per spokesman Brian McCarthy.
The Watson situation will eventually go to form federal judge Sue L. Robinson to determine if a violation occurred. If Robinson believes there was one, then she would then recommend a punishment, although in the end it will be commissioner Roger Goodell, or a designee, making the final determination.
This is as much a public relations situation for the league as a player discipline one. As such, the NFL would understandably be concerned about levying a punishment that seems light if further details come out, or an actual trial occurs impacting public sentiment.
Or Goodell could put Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would place Watson on indefinite paid leave and an eventual ruling could come later.
As this has dragged on and a continued drip, drip, drip of details and lawsuits have emerged, the situation for Watson’s NFL future has grown more dire. Where a six- or eight-game suspension once seemed most likely, almost no one is ruling out an entire season now.
Financially, Watson would be only lightly impacted by the NFL’s punishment. His Cleveland contract is structured to protect as much money as possible. His $45 million signing bonus can’t be touched, and his base pay of $1.035 million would be on a game-by-game basis.
Still, the 26-year-old Watson, after being held out by Houston for the 2021 season, doesn’t want to miss another entire season of his prime. And Cleveland, which has committed considerable monetary, draft pick and public relations assets to acquire Watson, doesn’t want to lose him for 2022 when it has a roster capable of competing for a Super Bowl.
Yet here we still are.
Yes, 20 of 24 cases are gone, the hurdle cleared by Watson. Yet the ones that remain are still potentially problematic, especially Solis.
“The case against Deshaun Watson started with one phone call, from one brave and strong woman,” Buzbee said in a statement.
It’s likely to end with that same woman.