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HOUSTON — Late last week, when details of the NFL’s suspension stance in the Deshaun Watson investigation began to privately circulate between parties involved in the case, a source in the middle of it all proposed that there was a single piece of information the league wanted publicly leaked. It was a nugget that would act like a public relations shield if Watson’s hearing before an independent disciplinary arbitrator didn’t unfold the way the league office thought it should.
In the event that happened, the source believed the NFL wanted the public to know what it had pushed for: A minimum suspension of one year.
“I think there’s a reason it’s getting around because that’s what the NFL wants," the source told Yahoo Sports. "What if the arbitrator looks at everything and comes back with a 10-game suspension? If everyone knows the league wanted a one-year suspension, it gives the NFL the ability to just say, ‘We sought a tougher penalty, but we’re also not going to undercut a collectively bargained process and this arbitrator on their first big case, either.’”
Less than 24 hours after that assertion was made Friday, multiple outlets reported that Watson’s disciplinary hearing would take place Tuesday. And the Wall Street Journal reported that the NFL was indeed seeking an indefinite suspension that would be at least one year in length, at which point Watson could apply for reinstatement. Soon afterward, multiple outlets confirmed the report.
If the league wanted that one-year suspension expectation to be out into the public’s consciousness, it got the message relayed.
Who is arbitrator Sue Robinson?
What does this mean for independent arbitrator Sue Robinson, who will now be under the microscope when it comes to sorting out what the league has found in its investigation?
Unlike past years when the NFL and NFL Players Association was constantly warring behind the scenes about whether the league’s arbitration process was fair, Robinson’s position is the culmination of the latest collective bargaining agreement, hashing out an old beef between the league and the union. Not only was Robinson jointly selected by the NFL and the union to act as disciplinary arbitrator, she will also be paid for her service by both. And she comes with fairly unimpeachable credentials, having earned herself a federal judgeship under the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1991. Ultimately, she served out her federal appointment until 2017, overlapping five presidential administrations.
Now she’s sorting through the NFL's Watson investigation that spanned nearly 16 months. When the hearings begin Tuesday, two sources familiar with the process told Yahoo Sports the league is expected to take a fairly narrow approach when it comes to whether Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy, although the scope still appears to be in some debate.
One source told Yahoo Sports the NFL has focused on six women who are accusing Watson of either sexual misconduct or sexual assault in their interactions with him. A second source said the number of women is five.
Both sources agreed on the one fundamental approach the NFL is taking: The league’s investigators wanted to advance their suspension push based on the women with the most evidence available for presentation. That includes digital data in the form of text messages, personal messages on social media, payment records and other contemporaneous forms of evidence, which could also include conversations the accusers had with others in the immediate aftermath of their alleged encounters with the former Houston Texans and current Cleveland Browns quarterback.
Why NFL might not appeal Robinson's ruling if it's less than 1-year ban for Watson
Robinson will also be hearing from what amounts to be the legal “aces” when it comes to the lawyers handling each side of of the case, between the NFL’s special counsel for investigations, Lisa Friel, and the NFLPA’s often-leaned-upon heavy hitter, Jeffrey Kessler, who has a wealth of experience battling the league in labor and disciplinary negotiations.
Sources on both sides of the hearing appear to agree there are three aspects that will be key when it is all settled:
Where will Robinson land on Watson’s suspension outlook once she has weighed all of the NFL investigators' evidence presented to her? Will she find the cases credible? Will the alleged incidents meet the standard for one or multiple violations of the personal conduct policy? And if so, what is the appropriate suspension for one or multiple violations?
Is there any precedent that Robinson feels is applicable in this case? While the number of allegations against Watson suggests this is unprecedented territory for a single player, the league’s push for a one-year ban is not. Last year, the NFL suspended wideout Calvin Ridley for at least one calendar year after a gambling investigation. And in past years, the league has also suspended players and coaches for various offenses following investigations (See: Saints' bounty scandal, for example). What, if any, precedent comes into play for the infractions and suspension lengths?
Possibly most important for the NFL, will the league be willing to essentially void Robinson’s decision with an appeal if she goes in a direction that doesn’t overlap with the NFL’s punishment suggestion?
That last issue is being talked about behind the scenes more than some might realize. Robinson represents a new and supposedly more equitable addition to the league’s disciplinary process. She is jointly agreed upon and jointly appointed to be the voice that ultimately finds the appropriate and fair middle territory. But she is not the final arbiter if someone is unhappy with her decision. Either side can ultimately appeal Robinson’s decision in terms of a suspension length, leaving the ultimate decision up to Goodell or whoever he might appoint to handle an appeal.
If that sounds like this is something that is ultimately in the league’s hands, that’s because it is — if the league wants to take it down that path.
If Robinson doesn’t agree with the NFL in this case and renders a suspension that is less than one year, will the NFL appeal? An appeal that would go to Goodell or his appointee?
As one source put it Sunday: “I honestly think the NFL will go with what Robinson decides because I don’t think they want to step on her in her very first big decision. It would be a bad look for the NFL to come out and say that this jointly picked federal judge with a long record was basically wrong in her first crack at it, then appeal it to Roger [Goodell] or whoever he picks, for what would basically be a unilateral final decision on discipline. If that’s what happens, then what’s the point of having a disciplinary officer that two sides choose? What’s the use if the NFL comes out and says the federal judge who they helped choose is in some way incompetent right off the bat?”
While that question may sound deep into the weeds on the Watson case, it may play a bigger part in what unfolds this week than people recognize. It also may be why the NFL may have wanted the one-year suspension suggestion out into the public sphere.
Now that it is, the league has an opportunity to accept Robinson’s ultimate decision, but also convey to the public that it still believed a more harsh penalty was worthy. Ultimately, that might be a middle ground the NFL can live with.