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The NFL now holds Deshaun Watson’s football future in its hands.
With independent disciplinary arbitrator Sue L. Robinson delivering a six-game suspension decision in Watson’s personal conduct policy case on Monday, the spotlight now shifts back to the NFL, which must decide whether to appeal the penalty. The league issued a statement Monday saying it's "reviewing" the decision and "will make a determination on next steps."
Barring a mutually agreed upon extension between the NFL and NFL Players Association, the league must either accept or file for an appeal of the decision by Thursday afternoon. Per rules in the latest collective bargaining agreement, it essentially gives the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell 72 hours to decide if it will appeal the final judgment to the commissioner or his chosen designee.
As one source said Monday, the league could focus on the determination that the behavior was, according to Robinson, "more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL." The league could determine if that warrants a longer suspension than a standard single domestic violence penalty of six games. The source added that it’s possible the NFL could appeal Robinson’s decision and ultimately split the final decision with the one-year suspension the league initially sought, landing on 11 or 12 games with automatic reinstatement, rather than a full calendar year that would have necessitated Watson applying for reinstatement.
For now, the league has the latitude to either accept Watson’s six-game ban, or overturn it in favor of the NFL unilaterally determining the final punishment for the Cleveland Browns' star quarterback.
If the NFL accepts Robinson’s ruling, Watson will sit out the first six games of the regular season and then rejoin the Browns on Oct. 17. However, if the league overturns the suspension, it must mount that appeal based on evidence that was already submitted to Robinson. As part of the process, the league would have to state in writing why it has reached a different punitive conclusion while using the same facts and testimony previously provided to Robinson by the NFL.
Per the CBA’s guidelines:
“The appeal shall be limited to arguments why, based on the evidentiary record below, the amount of discipline, if any, should be modified. The Commissioner or his designee will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding[.]”
The league can change the suspension to whatever it sees fit, so long as it explains why it is doing so. Once the NFL makes that determination, it’s the final word in the Watson case, barring other potential litigation outside of the league’s judicial process.
Ultimately, if the NFL makes such an appeal, it would be taking the position that Goodell or his chosen designee is a more “correct” arbiter of justice than Robinson, a former federal judge who reviewed arguments and exhibits in the case for a full month before issuing her decision this week.
Under the new CBA guidelines, Goodell or his designee are given the authority to add games to a suspension such as Watson’s if it’s determined that a more lengthy penalty is appropriate. Focusing on the part of Robinson’s ruling that referred to "egregious" behavior, the league could state that Robinson was correct in her determination but incorrect in her suspension standard.
The sources who viewed Robinson’s opinion believe that the domestic violence standard was a consideration in her final decision on Watson, despite the NFL presenting cases that lacked force or violence.
If the NFL appeals, the NFLPA would then have two business days to respond — running the timeline into early next week — before either Goodell or his designee issues a final finding late next week.