When it was reported that the NFL was appealing Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension, speculation immediately began about the NFL Players Association’s next steps.
The league is reportedly pushing for an indefinite suspension that would last at least a full season. The union, in not appealing the suspension issued by Judge Sue L. Robinson, showed that it would accept the ban, but it also asked the NFL not to appeal.
Now that the NFL has appealed and a longer suspension appears likely, people are wondering whether a.) The NFLPA would sue the NFL if it believes the suspension is too long and b.) Would a lawsuit lead to a stay of the suspension and allow Watson to play in Week 1 of the regular season against the Panthers.
Lawsuits by the NFLPA against the NFL have delayed suspensions in the past. Both Ezekiel Elliott and Tom Brady were able to play in regular-season contests as the suits played out in court. But Elliott and Brady’s situations were different than Watson’s.
Here’s why Watson is unlikely to play the first week of the season.
Brady (Deflategate) and Elliott (domestic violence allegations) were suspended by the NFL in 2015 and 2017, respectively, and the NFLPA appealed both bans. The suspensions were upheld, and then the NFLPA took the NFL to court, arguing that neither player had committed offenses that warranted suspensions.
While Brady and Elliott both wound up losing their legal battles and had to serve their suspensions, Brady was able to play all of the 2015 season before giving up the fight and sitting out the first four games of the 2016 season. Elliott held off his six-game suspension until late in the 2017 season, sitting out Weeks 10 through 15.
The Watson situation is different, however. Because the NFLPA did not appeal the six-game suspension that Robinson issued, it accepted that he would be out for the first six games of the season and return in Week 7. In the cases of Brady and Elliott, the union argued that neither player should have been suspended. Brady’s suspension was initially thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman, who ruled that the NFL did not notify Brady of a possible suspension. Elliott was granted a preliminary injunction, which put the suspension on hold until the court cases were finished.
As NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said on the “Pat McAfee Show,” Watson would still have to serve his six-game suspension even if his case goes to federal court.
“The question really is, what happens in the seventh game? That’s where the debate is going to kind of start if they go the federal court route,” Rapoport said.
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported that another issue is how the appeal process will work. The NFL’s position is that Watson’s suspension should be longer than six games. The person designated by commissioner Roger Goodell to hear the appeal, Peter C. Harvey, cannot wipe away the existing suspension; all he can do is agree with the NFL that the suspension should be for more games or say that the ban should remain six games.
The league’s Personal Conduct Policy does not allow the appeal to be wiped out if the appeal is only to increase the suspension. And a preliminary injunction being granted in federal court is unlikely because the NFLPA would have to prove irreparable harm if the suspension goes into effect. That would not be the case here because Watson is already forced to sit the first six games regardless of the appeal.
In addition, Robinson concluded that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy three different times for non-violent sexual assault. By not appealing the suspension, the NFLPA accepted Robinson’s findings, which made them binding, per Florio.
Then there’s Watson’s contract. The Browns are paying him $1.035 million in base salary in 2022. That means that the games he misses this year would cost him money from just that amount. Should his suspension leak into 2023, however, each game missed would cost him a share of the $46 million in guaranteed salary he is slated to receive that year. Rather than lose $60,882 per game, Watson would lose $2,705,882 per game.
Florio said that it is likely the NFLPA will try to challenge the NFL if a longer suspension is imposed, but given the money Watson would lose if his suspension leaks into 2023 and the likelihood that the NFLPA won’t win in court against the league, there might be enough incentive to not allow this legal battle to drag on too long.