March 27, 2021

What a tougher NFL personal conduct policy means for Deshaun Watson

The NFL’s investigation, which could take longer than the civil cases, is being led by…

The NFL’s investigation, which could take longer than the civil cases, is being led by Lisa Friel, a former prosecutor and chief of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York. Friel was hired as a senior vice president and special counsel for investigations by the league in 2015. The job was created after the league was criticized for how it handled a disturbing domestic violence case involving former Baltimore running back Ray Rice after he was captured on surveillance video knocking out his wife with a punch at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino.

The Rice case is regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the NFL personal conduct policy.

Under the NFL’s since-enhanced policy, there’s now a baseline suspension of six games without pay for violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse or sexual assault. Even though no incident reports or criminal charges have been filed against Watson, he’s still subject to potential discipline if the league finds there’s credible evidence a violation occurred.

Thomas Santanello, a lawyer and former NFL agent based in Boca Raton, Fla., has had clients face league investigations, including former Pittsburgh Steelers and Raiders wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Out of the league now, Bryant was suspended multiple times under the substance-abuse policy.

“Ever since the Ray Rice incident, the NFL has had more of a high moral ground,” Santanello said. “In the court of public opinion during the ‘Me Too’ era, the NFL is going to always launch an investigation, and they’ll want the cooperation of everyone involved.

“The NFL can punish you whether you’re found guilty or innocent. If you don’t cooperate with their investigation, you’re more likely to get suspended. It’s a real uphill fight when you’re in a tough situation like Deshaun is dealing with.”

Decisions on discipline are based on Friel’s and other investigators’ findings and recommendations. The revised collective bargaining agreement established a year ago has a disciplinary officer jointly approved by the NFL and the NFL Players Association determine any potential suspensions. Players are allowed to appeal any punishment, which would be heard by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Prior to the change, Goodell made the decisions on punishment, with appeals heard by one of his appointees.

There’s also a potential scenario where Watson could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. However, that doesn’t happen until during the season as an option for a player to be paid but essentially suspended while a case is still being investigated.

Personal Conduct Policy by Houston Chronicle on Scribd

Friel quickly contacted Houston attorney Tony Buzbee last week when the first cases were filed and requested permission to interview the attorney’s clients. Buzbee said he plans to cooperate with the NFL.

Atlanta-based attorney David Cornwell has represented several high-profile athletes in similar cases involving the NFL personal conduct policy, including Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when he was twice accused of sexual assault and suspended for six games in 2010, with the punishment eventually lowered to four games.

“Lisa has a background in this area of the law, and her knowledge and experience tells her where to look,” said Cornwell, whose other professional athlete clients have included Jameis Winston, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and Jonathan Martin. “She’s very thorough and recognizes the competing differences with the 30-day calendar of a civil case and what that means for a player in a case that has triggered the conduct policy while having the case hanging over his head and the league is simultaneously doing its conduct investigation.”

In 2019, the Kansas City Chiefs had wide receiver Tyreek Hill remain away from the team for four months while the NFL investigated child abuse allegations. No charges were filed, and no suspension was issued.

Cornwell cautioned this could be a long, drawn-out process for Watson, who is represented by Rusty Hardin.

“Unfortunately, he’s going to have to buckle down and recognize that it’s going to take time,” Cornwell said. “For someone who has reached this level of performance and stature in this league, it will be difficult. I guarantee he’ll have a conversation with Rusty where he’ll be told there’s nothing you can do to make this go faster. It’s going to drive him mad.”

In 2017, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended six games after facing five accusations of domestic violence involving a former girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson. He was investigated for an entire year and punished even though Columbus, Ohio, prosecutors declined to charge him with a crime.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown was suspended eight games last year for multiple violations of the personal conduct policy. Brown was being investigated for an accusation of sexual misconduct, pleading no contest to felony burglary with battery and two misdemeanors. He is still facing an unresolved separate NFL investigation stemming from a lawsuit filed by a former trainer alleging she was sexually assaulted by him. Further discipline is possible.

Santanello also has had clients face demands for money for alleged misconduct and threats of lawsuits if they didn’t pay to avoid litigation. Watson’s business manager, Bryan Burney, filed a sworn affidavit released by Hardin alleging one “Jane Doe” attempted to blackmail the quarterback for $30,000. The demand for pay was denied.

“It’s almost like legal extortion,” Santanello said. “It’s damned if you do pay and damned if you don’t pay. The problem is the only people that know the truth are the people directly involved, and it’s easy for people to make assumptions on what’s real.”

Cornwell said these types of situations arise frequently but rarely become public knowledge.

“Unfortunately, it’s not surprising,” Cornwell said. “These young men become targets. It’s hard for people to understand, but there are some lawyers in this country who will sue someone because the entire strategy is their belief that the pain of the lawsuit is greater than the pain of the athlete writing a big check to make someone go away, even if they don’t have a legitimate claim. It’s hard to believe that it happens, but not only does it happen, it’s not uncommon.

“If someone rests on a higher pedestal, the idea is they’re more likely to pay money to not get blemished.”

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