CLEVELAND — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has handed off Deshaun Watson’s discipline case to a lawyer with league connections and expertise in domestic violence and sexual assault.
Goodell chose former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey on Thursday to hear the league’s appeal of the six-game suspension without pay given to Cleveland’s quarterback, whose playing status hangs in the balance.
Watson was suspended this week by independent disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, who concluded he violated the league’s personal conduct policy after being accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women in Texas.
The league, which had been pushing for an indefinite suspension for Watson, wanted further discipline and appealed Robinson’s ruling on Wednesday. Watson had just finished practice and was still on the field when he learned of the league’s move.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, the appeal gave power back to Goodell to enact punishment — something he’s done routinely during his tenure — but he instead chose Harvey, currently a partner at a law firm in New York, to hear the appeal.
With a background in criminal law, Harvey has advised the NFL and other professional sports leagues on the development and implementation of workplace policies, including the league’s personal conduct policy.
Harvey has served as Goodell’s designee in other arbitrations, and he’s a member of the league’s Diversity Advisory Committee, created to improve racial and gender diversity across the NFL.
In 2017, Harvey was one of four members of an expert panel who reviewed the league’s domestic violence investigation into Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was suspended six games for violating the conduct policy.
Goodell chose a designee to handle Watson’s case because he wanted an expert in the field who can focus solely on this matter, a person familiar with Harvey’s appointment told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because it’s an internal matter.
Goodell is busy with Hall of Fame weekend festivities in Canton, Ohio, and the upcoming league meeting on Tuesday.
There is no timeline for when Harvey will hear the appeal. According to the league’s personal conduct policy, it must be done on an expedited basis.
Due in part to a public outcry that the suspension was too light, the league appealed Robinson’s decision and wants Watson disciplined further.
“The NFL’s appeal addresses whether, based on the findings made by Judge Robinson, the discipline should be modified to include a professional evaluation and treatment as determined by medical experts, an appropriate fine, and a longer suspension,” the league said in a statement.
“Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Mr. Harvey’s written decision “will constitute the full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s), and parties” to the CBA.
In her 16-page ruling, Robinson, who was jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association, called Watson’s behavior “egregious” and “predatory.” The women alleged he sexually assaulted or sexually harassed them during massage therapy sessions when the quarterback played for the Houston Texans.
The former federal judge concluded that Watson violated the league’s policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person and undermining the league’s integrity.
However, in imposing the suspension, Robinson pointed out flaws in the league’s guidelines for player misconduct, which limited her authority to penalize him.
Robinson did stipulate in her punishment that Watson must use only club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career.
The Browns traded three first-round draft picks in March to Houston and signed Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler, to a five-year, $230 million contract. Because of the way Cleveland structured his contract, Watson stood to forfeit only $345,000 under Robinson’s ruling.
The 26-year-old has continued to practice with the Browns, who are again in a wait-and-see mode after thinking they might only be without Watson for six games. The outlook now isn’t nearly as clear for a team that had Super Bowl hopes after signing one of the league’s top QBs.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi contributed.